In New York, amidst the current pandemic demobilizing our cities, Denny Dimin Gallery in New York mounts “Hong Kong — Tales of the City,” a panoramic showcase of Hong Kong video art, co-presented with Videotage.
TEXT: Barbara Pollack
IMAGES: Courtesy of Denny Dimin Gallery
Coronavirus COVID-19 has hit New York, leading to a general shutdown of galleries and museums, at-home quarantine and panic shopping, shocking locals who seemed entirely unaware that this had already happened in Hong Kong, China and other countries long before this. Unfortunately, one of the victims of the widespread shutdown are a collective of Hong Kong artists whose works are on view at the Denny Dimin Gallery in Tribeca.
Videotage is well known to Hong Kongers but much less known in the United States, yet it has been encouraging the making, preservation, and distribution of experimental video art since 1986. That is two years before Zhang Peili filmed himself smashing, assembling and re-smashing a mirror for his pioneer work, 30 x 30 (1988), often incorrectly ascribed as the “first video artwork in China.” However, this selection of Hong Kong video art, curated by Videotage director Isaac Leung, proves that multimedia work from that city should not be overlooked or disregarded.
“Hong Kong’s complex history and its unique identity have inspired artists to explore the conflicting notions of localism, nationalism and globalization. The works of Hong Kong’s artists reflect diverse experiences, often confronting mainstream narratives, portray ways of life as a form of subversion and resistance,” says Leung in his introductory essay. Indeed, what I found fascinating about these works were the way they often subverted normality. Several of the younger artists who might be described as “queer” are more accurately representative of the heterotopia that Hong Kong is, according to independent curator Valerie Doran.
Ellen Pau, a co-founder of Videotage, contributes her video Diversion (1990), a historic work produced one year after the Tiananmen Square protests, using found footage of swimmers—government newsreels and educational videos—as a metaphor for the problem of forced emigration. Equally fascinated by history is the relatively new video, The History of Riots (The DJ) (2013), by Lee Kai Chung. The artist addresses the 1967 Leftist Riots that forced the British colonial government to reform its social policies and relationship with mainland China. Here we see, in black-and-white on a single monitor, an actor dressed in a suit up to his shoulders, his head beyond the frame, performing as radio commentator Lam Bun who was killed for his pronouncements on his program, “Can’t Stop Striking.” Lam was killed in August 1967.
Door Games Window Frames: Near Drama (2012) by Linda Lai Chiu han is a single channel video showing three parallel windows of found film footage. The work was made from a database of 500 movie clips from 11 Cantonese thrillers and melodramas. Lai’s selection emphasizes the frequent use of opening and closing doors as a device in these films juxtaposed with close-up shots of heroines’ faces. This may be interpreted as an exercise in anthropology, focusing on human behavior from the recent past. But, for this viewer, I felt like this was a solid dissection of reality TV, demonstrating how fascinated we all are about human drama especially when it is overdramatic.
The most exciting discoveries in the show come at the final section on queerness. Joseph Chen’s Sleepingtripping Dualogy (2018–19) conjures up a science fiction travelogue, as if a Martian landed on Earth at this time, though it’s actually the artist himself in a robot costume. Mixing real and dreamlike spaces, footage filmed on a rudimentary Super 8 video camera and online materials, the work destabilizes the viewing experience and overturns a linear understanding of Hong Kong. But far better is Qingdao Lotus Pond (2018) by Ip Wai Lung that shows an alien creature dressed in a gold rubber suit. This trans-human is carrying a pack of Tsingtao beers and is slowly walking, waist-deep through a lily pond. He pours the beer on the leaves surrounding him with the intention of fertilizing nature with alcohol. Instead, it seems like pollution will win out and perhaps destroy the vegetation. This video seems like the perfect metaphor of China’s encroachment on Hong Kong, prescient of the protests we see today.
Speaking of protest, some might see this exhibition, now online, and wonder why there has been no coverage of recent events. For that, I can highly recommend “afterbefore: images and sounds from Hong Kong,” a group show featured at Chinatown Soup in January and February. Here a highly intelligent team of curators—Valerie C. Doran, Angela Su, Tse Ming Chong and Cédric Maridet—brought together a collaborative group of Hong Kong photographers, videographers, and sound artists together with writers and poets. In the narrow gallery, you were surrounded by creative approaches to documentary photography and video that really brought the sounds and feelings of unrest and resistance.
Together, these two shows would be a brilliant encapsulation of Hong Kong photography and video over the past three decades and right now.
Hong Kong – Tales of the City
13 March — 2 May 2020
Denny Dimin Gallery, New York
**Due to the fast-changing situation with current measures taken regarding COVID-19, we highly recommend staying updated on gallery opening hours via their website and social media pages. The exhibition may also be accessed virtually here.