Emerging Hong Kong artist manipulates the fragile medium of glass to create ethereal compositions.
“In Peril”, Hong Kong artist Jovial Yeung’s debut solo exhibition featuring seven delicate glass-based works, runs at independent art space Mur Nomade until 2 April 2016, past the upcoming Hong Kong Art Week in March.
“Peril” in various forms
As the exhibition title “In Peril” suggests, the show explores “peril” in various forms, including dangers both imminent and distant, insecurities both physical and emotional, as well as risks both real and imaginary.
Jovial Yeung explores these themes by manipulating glass, a material that is simultaneously strong and fragile. Through various inventive and contemplative processes, she creates aesthetically arresting works that provoke viewers in visceral ways with their simple composition and raw materiality.
Personal and universal
On opposite corners of the gallery space – in a visual call and response with each other – are works that form the two major parts of the show, “me” and “them”. Although these works share unifying creative processes, they look inward and outward respectively, reflecting on the self “in peril” while also transcending the personal.
According to Yeung, the three works on the “me” side of the exhibition are raw externalisations of her feelings of danger both in daily life and during her creative process. The four works on the opposite side, on the other hand, stem from her research on animal rights and capture her empathy for animals mistreated by humans for financial gain.
Drawn to glass
Young Hong Kong artist Jovial Yeung obtained her BA in Visual Arts from the Academy of Visual Arts at the Hong Kong Baptist University. As an undergraduate, she was exposed to what she calls a “beautiful medium with diverse colours and forms” and was quickly captivated by the glass-working process.
As Yeung puts it, there are many ways of “playing” with glass, but since many glass-working procedures are irreversible, an exhilarating balance between control and chance is inherent to the creative process. The seemingly dichotomous physical properties of glass also fascinate Yeung. She reveals:
Glass can be very strong. Wine glasses, for example, can last a long time without breaking, but at the same time, they can also shatter easily.
Yeung highlights the simultaneous strength and fragility of glass in her signature works, which she calls “needle paintings”, a term she coined from her experimentations in incorporating glass onto flat painting surfaces. Her “needle paintings” feature simple but recognisable images traced by extremely fine and delicate glass pins protruding evenly from plain canvases in a dotted outline.
Yeung makes these delicate glass pins in a meticulous flameworking process. Instead of melting glass in a furnace or kiln, she heats it up with a high-temperature fire from a blowgun, pulling it out thinner than hair as it melts. The painstaking process requires precise and controlled motions, and each of the glass needles has to be pulled individually before being assembled onto the canvases.
The individual glass needles making up Yeung’s ‘paintings’ are delicate and fragile, but together, they jut out into the viewer’s space, threatening pain to whoever touches them. This contrast between the allure of the glass aligned neatly on canvas and its stark, hostile materiality pervades all of Yeung’s works to different effects.
The first work on the “me” side is a glass installation from Yeung’s graduation show. Entitled Revenge (2012), the work evokes immediate uneasiness with its twisted organic forms: hollow, organ-shaped glass containers, two of which contain a blood-red liquid, hang from the ceiling with sharp black spikes on the outside. Shone on by a spotlight, the hanging, spiky forms cast ominous shadows on the wall behind, increasing the sense of imminent danger lurking in the work.
According to Yeung, the work is inspired by her fear of mosquitoes, ubiquitous insects that seem to haunt her from nowhere with their unpredictable movements and exasperating sting. Viewers are invited to step under the work and observe the shadows on the walls from different angles to surround themselves with the encompassing “danger” of mosquito bites.
The hostile spikes and blood-red liquid elevate the pesky annoyances that mosquito bites normally are to a real, imminent danger. According to Yeung, she finds her relationship with mosquitoes intriguing – she can easily kill them, but they constantly evade her and cause her a lot of fear and discomfort. These insects, as she puts it, represent a “constant peril in her daily life”.
Self-defence and Self-preservation
Self-Defence (2013) is Yeung’s first “needle painting”. Glass needles outline the figure of a woman hugging her knees in the lower corner of a bare canvas. Yeung calls the work an “emotional self-portrait” with glass, as it projects her self-described emotional defensiveness through the contrast between form and materiality. Just as the body language of the outlined figure is defensive, the needles poking out from the outline are offensive, promising harm to whoever comes close with an embrace.
My Right Wrist (2015) outlines Yeung’s right hand and forearm with glass needles to commemorate a surgery she underwent in 2013. Even though pain in her hand plagued her, Yeung was at first hesitant to undergo the operation suggested by her orthopaedic doctor because of the inherent risk: her hand might become even worse after the surgery, making it impossible for her to continue working with glass.
After the surgery, Yeung could not perform normal actions with her hand for one and a half years. In the work, the glass needles are evenly spaced, and the simple outline of the hand and forearm is framed in the centre of the white canvas, in stark contrast to two specks of gold marking where her surgical scars are. Here, the dichotomous properties of glass are evoked to point to the parallel contrast between the strength and fragility of the hand, a body part integral to an artist’s work that is also easily incapacitated.
“Them”: dangers we are oblivious to
Incorporating gold leaf to contrast the subtle outlines of glass needles continues as a central strategy in the works on the other side of the exhibition. Representing different animals mistreated by humans for profit, these works form a series called “The Victims” based on an ongoing, “sadly endless” research project.
After reading an article on Hong Kong’s role in the ivory trade, Yeung looked into how cruel the tusk harvesting process is, especially when baby elephants are subjected to the ruthlessness of ivory poachers. Her in-depth research into animals’ plights has since expanded. On one occasion, she even travelled to Taiwan to talk to a moon bear conservationist to understand how bear bile is harvested.
“The Victims” feature simple outlines of different animals. On white canvases, solid gold patches – from gold leaf – highlight the areas of the respective animals’ bodies that are hunted inhumanely for profit. Yeung uses gold as the singular element of colour to contrast the fine glass needles. The visually bright and eye-catching quality of the colour, which at the same time connotes value and worth, symbolises how humans see these body parts purely as profit.
Although the outlines are simple, Yeung delineates the eyes in detail, as these are often the animals’ only remaining channel to express their pain and suffering when subjected to cruelty. The goal of creating these delicate works, according to Yeung, is both to externalise her own emotional experience in finding out about animal cruelty and to provoke viewers to reflect on collective human actions.
Duck and Goose (2015) is a set of two “needle paintings” with the outline of a duck and goose respectively. On both canvases, a large, solid patch of gold represent the bloated livers of these animals – a result of force-feeding to produce a delicacy: foie gras.
The glass needles outlining the goose are grey to reflect the colour of its feathers, making it easy to recognise from the shadows cast by the spotlight. In comparison, the glass needles tracing the duck are white, making its outline harder to see, speaking to the comparative “invisibility” of ducks as victims of force-feeding to make cheaper foie gras.
Bear (2015) depicts a moon bear, with the unmistakable moon-shaped mark on its body, in an upright position on its hind legs. Its expression, as outlined by glass needles around the eyes and facial features, is helpless, and its four paws and gallbladder are highlighted in gold to represent the expensive delicacies ‘extracted’ from the animal: bear bile and bear paws.
Polar Bear (2015) has no gold highlights as their body parts are not harvested, but they are victims of human selfishness all the same. Because of manmade climate change, polar bears are becoming increasingly endangered. Yeung outlines the profile of a large polar bear with transparent glass needles – referencing the fact that polar bear fur is white – to suggest how the plight of these animals so far away might seem invisible to us. The outline that is at first transparent, however, becomes clear if we care to look closely or shine a light on it.
Yeung’s unique process of incorporating glass pins and gold leaf onto canvases creates simple but mesmerising works that bear an intimate imprint of her emotional responses to “peril” in different forms, both internal and external, inducing viewers not only to reflect on a personal level but also to do so collectively on a universal level.
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