Friday, 14 June 2013

The Art of Hong Kong Eye, Saatchi Gallery

Amy Cheung, 'Toy Tank' at 'Hong Kong Eye'
Inside Amy Cheung's 'Toy Tank' at 'Hong Kong Eye'

Saatchi’s 'Hong Kong Eye' is an 18-course amuse-bouche of the region's brewing contemporary art scene. If there was any doubt, just look at renowned Swiss fair Art Basel's debut in Hong Kong last month – which attracted plenty of customers  (including Kate Moss and Roman Abramovich apparently) eager for a slice of the massively lucrative market.  

Sponsored by Prudential, Asia's leading corporate UK owned insurance company (the hint is in it's name), I was keen to discover how the show would, as its official introduction claims, “draw on (artists) specific cultural backgrounds to expose the city’s nuances” convincingly to new audiences.

Known as " The Pearl of the Orient", it’s easy to be seduced by the city's glossy patina: a teeming hyper-networked metropolis, breathtaking skyline boasting most Rolls-Royces per capita. But at what social/psychological price? This is unadulterated HK in the eyes of its own artists; where unspoken anxiety simmers headily throughout the exhibition. 

Amy Cheung's life-sized wooden 'Toy Tank' 

Standing in the first room is Amy Cheung's full-size wooden ‘Toy Tank’, a loaded choice of material for a symbol so potent. Visitors are invited play combat; crawling inside the vehicle, submerged in darkness. Video screens and joysticks let one navigate and unleash gunfire within a simulated Saatchi Gallery. Complete with realistic sound effects, the haunting atmosphere and unmistakable echoes of Tiananmen are inescapable. Curiously lying in its path is Adrian Wong's five-foot animatronic peanut soft toy, convulsing like dying road-kill. Novel child's play aside, these examples show how local artists are incorporating the cutting-edge technology in their work. Compared to the west, its apparent lack of established arts infrastructure and rules appears to work in its favour. 

Justin Wong’s 'Difficult Life Decision' encompasses two works. The first is a giant periodic table of stickered symbols across an entire wall. Parodying a typical gruelling cycle of work, stress and digitally-prompted demands, the day starts with "Email” and ends in “Blank”, contrasting with signs of human woes like “Why Me”, “Mortgage” and “Day Off”. It’s the blueprint of the kind of living mode Londoners are frighteningly catching up with.

Justin Wong 's 'Difficult Life Decision''

The second part is a kiosk that asks rhetorically “How Are U Today?” Conceived, explains the helpful touch screen, to “help overworked white-collar employees contemplate life or even create a new one”, by anonymously sharing their secrets, worries and pent-up frustrations. If Wong’s works visually encapsulate HK’s insanely-paced work ethic, the definitive soundtrack belongs to Joao Vasco Paiva's installation of MTR (HK’s underground) turnstiles. A clanging-metal racket so ingrained as a Hong Konger; I barely noticed how irritatingly loud it was it until now. 

On more contentious ground, questions about China’s cultural identity are painted in Chow Chun Fai's iconic movie scenes of Chinese capitalist dreams. Everyone wants a piece of China now, but there is less concern for its own people, let alone those who speak openly about it. Issues like corruption seem to be subtly implied in subtitled actors' quotes − “China is not ruled by Chinese anyway”. Unlike the 'Korean Eye' or 'Indonesian Eye', unsurprisingly this is as controversial as it gets. 

Chow Chun Fai, 'Legend of the Fist: China is not Ruled by Chinese Anyway'

That being said, I don’t think 'Hong Kong Eye' was ever intended to expose its dark side. Intensity has always been the way of life; China didn't prosper by luck. 

The most unique aspect shown is HK’s mongrel culture, owed to its rich history as a former British colony and international trading port. An incongruous collage of old meets new, east meets west under constant urban renewal. Ho Sin Tung’s 'LOVE HOTEL: Please pretend we’ve been to a lot of places' includes a collage of cards from locally-endangered seedy motels named after glamorous holiday destinations. “Venice Inn”, “Hawaii Guest House” and the delightfully misspelt “Romb Hotel” are kitschy delights you'd never find in a tourist map. 

This is an show where somewhat frustratingly, no message or agenda is explicit. Contemplative effort, imagination and open-mindedness are needed to appreciate HK’s cultural fabric – which is complex, idiosyncratic and contradictory. However its mystic allure is a promising sign of big things yet to come.

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