Hong Kong artists emerge from the shadow of China in new show

by Frederik Balfour

Bloomberg

Some artists suffer more to create their work than others. Angela Su certainly has.

In her nude photographic series titled “The Hartford Girl and Other Stories,” she had lines of text tattooed — without ink — onto her back to produce red welts in a nod to the 39 lashes of Christ.

Su’s work is one of the more arresting pieces in “Hong Kong Eye,” an exhibition of 24 local artists at ArtisTree gallery in Quarry Bay, Hong Kong. The works range from traditional Chinese ink paintings to conceptual pieces such as an installation of empty subway turnstiles rotating automatically, to the downright wacky — a furry 3-meter-long tuber controlled by animatronics that rolls around emitting a non-stop stream of “ums” and “ahs.”

Organizers say the show is designed to attract attention to Hong Kong artists who have languished in the shadow of mainland China. (There is a delightfully conspicuous absence of Mao images in these works.)

“A lot of contemporary art here has been overlooked,” said Nigel Hurst, chief executive of London’s Saatchi Gallery and a cocurator of the show. “This is a fantastic opportunity to bring contemporary Hong Kong art to international attention.”

“Hong Kong Eye” is a traveling exhibition founded by Parallel Media Group chairman David Ciclitira and his wife Serenella that debuted in the Saatchi Gallery in December.

During a five-week run it attracted more than 200,000 visitors, a stamp of approval that should help the Hong Kong artists get some of the recognition they deserve — in their own backyard.

“Hong Kong art is probably the best kept secret in the Chinese art world, but now the word is out,” said Hong Kong curator Johnson Chang.

Works by mainland artists including Zhang Xiaogang, Zeng Fanzhi and Yue Minjun sell for several million dollars at auction, yet it’s extremely rare for a Hong Kong artist to command six-figure prices.

“Hong Kong Eye” is not a selling exhibition, and helps fill a void in the city which has no permanent space to showcase its artists. Hong Kong’s new contemporary art museum, M+, will not open until 2017.

The first piece you’ll see entering the show is Amy Cheung’s full-size taxi, made of wood and plastic with real wheels and side mirrors. It is pitched at a dangerous angle that perfectly captures the lurching ride you feel in the back seat of a real taxi.

Born in Guangzhou in 1945, Leung Kui Ting is the oldest exhibitor. After moving to Hong Kong in 1964, he joined the Hong Kong New Ink movement and his works continue the fusion of classical painting techniques with modern Western art.

Lam Tung Pang also combines traditional techniques to tackle nontraditional themes. His two works, depicting polar bears stranded on vanishing ice floes, use charcoal, acrylics, and burnt paper in a decidedly non-Hong Kong theme.

In contrast, Chow Chun Fai’s canvases are entirely embedded in local culture. His acrylic paintings reproduce stills from classic Hong Kong films such as “Infernal Affairs.” Themes of contemporary Hong Kong also inform the work of Wilson Shieh, whose ink and gouache depicts five women in architectural dresses in “Five Tallest Buildings in Hong Kong.”

Joao Vasco Paiva’s turnstiles reference Hong Kong’s ubiquitous subway system and explore the often blurry boundary between public and private space.

I’m sure Adrian Wong’s inarticulate tuber, “In Search of Primordial Idiolect IV,” is the piece visitors will understand the least (could those “ums” and “ahs” be all that’s left of deconstructed speech?) but remember the best.

“Hong Kong Eye” runs till May 31. For more information visit www.hongkongeye.org/en/exhibitions.