Art Radar takes a look at Tai Kwun Contemporary’s inaugural exhibition, curated by experimental art “laboratory” Spring Workshop.
Two years in the making, the group show responds to the site’s history as a prison, court and police station complex, and draws connections with contemporary issues in Hong Kong and beyond.
Following extensive and careful restoration, Hong Kong’s former Central Police Station complex has reopened as Tai Kwun, a stunning new cultural hub dedicated to celebrating heritage and art. Tai Kwun Contemporary is its art gallery, housed in a contemporary building designed by Herzog & de Meuron that pays homage to the historical monuments surrounding it.
“Dismantling the Scaffold” is its inaugural exhibition presented by Spring Workshop, a “visual arts hacker space” dedicated to the pollination of ideas across disciplines and cultures. Director and Curator-At-Large Christina Li takes as starting point Tai Kwun’s past as a space built to impose control, and plays on the dual meaning of “scaffold” both as a temporary structure to support construction or deconstruction and as a stage for public executions in the past. The exhibition title points also to the confluence of Tai Kwun’s opening with the (temporary) closing of Spring Workshop as it reaches the end of its planned five-year term. Given Spring’s reputation for its independent, experimental and highly collaborative approach involving partners outside the art world, it is no surprise that this exhibition features a rich selection of artist collectives and research projects, continuing to challenge the traditional definitions of what is and is not art.
Nucleus by PolyLester, a multidisciplinary design and production studio formed by Gabriel Lester and Martine Vledder, is something of a prison within a former prison. Imposing steel beams are juxtaposed against inviting colourful plastic curtains, forming an ambiguous structure that invites both apprehension and a sense of delight not unlike that inspired by playgrounds. Its design of upper and lower sections crossed with outer and inner areas allows the viewer to survey others but also to be the object of a stranger’s gaze, raising questions of surveillance and control and drawing connections with non-physical complexes similarly designed to attract and ensnare, like the social media that we can now neither live with nor without.
Panamaian artist Jhafis Quintero’s drawings on wood panels take the viewer from the theoretical to the deeply personal. Jailed for ten years for bank robbery, Quintero was compelled to become an artist during his incarceration, with art serving as a crucial channel to vent his anxieties and fears. He states:
Creation is indispensable to the inmates’ survival.” Yet the relationship between art and criminality is not simply one of therapy. Quintero further suggests that they are in fact“twin brother[s]” with intertwined roots – “both share the necessity to transgress rules.
Viewing Quintero’s works, one might speculate on the sheer foreignness of his experience as an inmate. Yet a poster stuck back-to-front on the window of the exhibition space suddenly subverts one’s self-concept relative to the surrounding space. The observer becomes the observed, trapped within the glass and metal façade of the building.
Bird Cage, a work by one of Hong Kong’s most socially engaged artists Luke Ching Chin Wai, uses a number of elements – from the afore-mentioned poster to a pair of videos of a missing plane and a trapped bird – to raise wry questions about our perceived sense of freedom. Dispersed at unexpected points in the space, these elements are a reminder of the hidden limits of this freedom.
If being under control is so pervasive, who is doing the controlling? Xijing Men’s piece Chapter 4: I Love Xijing – the Daily Life of Xijing Presidents imagines the absurdist leaders of the fictitious nation of Xijing – so named as counter to Beijing, Nanjing and ‘Dongjing’ aka Tokyo (‘North’, ‘South’ and ‘East’ capitals respectively). Formed by Chen Shaoxiong, Gimhongsok and Ozawa Tsuioshi, Xijing Men is a cross-national collective that formed to skewer the patriotic posturing of the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Chapter 4 expands their critique further to take an absurdist look at the arbitrary basis of power structures and the regimes they administer. After all, as Sapiens-author and historian Yuval Noah Harari claims, nations are but another piece of fiction created to enable large-scale human cooperation:
Any large-scale human cooperation – whether a modern state, a medieval church, an ancient city or an archaic tribe – is rooted in common myths that exist only in people’s collective imagination.
In any power structure, there are also those who struggle against its dictates. During his residency at Spring Workshop last year, Japanese artist Koki Tanaka brought his practice of research into communities formed through coping with adversity to Hong Kong. The exhibition features two video documentation works, Precarious Tasks #9: 24 hrs Gathering (Timeline) and a follow up piece, Engaged Gesture, created this year. The works reveal conversations reminiscing and reflecting upon the city’s Umbrella Movement of 2014 – a milestone of large-scale social engagement and activism, the legacy of which continues to be under debate as Hong Kong grapples with its conflicted relationship with Beijing.
The exhibition reveals structures of control – visible and invisible – in practically every aspect of society. Perhaps death is one of the few ways to escape, as Curator Christina Li suggests with the inclusion of video piece CREDIT MORT by Hong Kong artists Nadim Abbas, Magdalen Wong and Finnish artist Erkka Nissinen. In their second collaboration together, the artists imagine a world where death is so attractive that ‘death pills’ are desperately sought after as a sweet respite from the demands of the living. Inspired by modern society’s ubiquitous advertising, the piece takes a dig at consumerist culture where even death could be marketed with catchy jingles and limited-edition gold packaging. For consumerism is perhaps the most powerful system of all in today’s world, universally alluring in its promise of buyable joy and at the same time moulding believers’ deepest desires and dictating our behaviour.
“Dismantling the Scaffold” offers a multi-disciplinary look at systems of control, from physical imprisonment to more insidious and pervasive mental forms. It is an invitation to reflect on the various invisible forms of scaffolding that shape each one of us, and to ask what actions we might consciously take to respond in our everyday lives.
“Dismantling the Scaffold” is on view from 9 June to 19 August 2018 at Tai Kwun Contemporary, 10 Hollywood Road, Central, Hong Kong.
- “So Near Yet So Far”: the subjective and objective universe by Chinese artist Ni Youyu – July 2018 – Perrotin presents Ni Youyu’s first solo exhibition in Hong Kong
- The spaces that shape us: Korean artist Do Ho Suh in Venice – June 2018 – Art Radar has a look at Do Ho Suh’s work on show in Venice on the occasion of the 16th Architecture Biennale
- “Phantom Arm”: tackling virtual space at SeMA, Buk Seoul Museum of Art in Seoul, Korea – June 2018 – Art Radar takes a closer look at the works of the six contributing artists and collectives
- “2065” by Laurence Lek and K11’s “DIGITAL PLAYGROUND” in Hong Kong – June 2018 – K11 recently presented an exhibition by Lawrence Lek, as well as an interactive showcase of vintage video games
- Healing Spaces: Taiwanese artist Wang Wen-Chih on his ‘Sanctuary’ – interview – March 2018 – despite its main galleries undergoing renovations, TFAM continues to attract many visitors due to its outdoor bamboo installation
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