by Daniel Kurjakovic
The exhibition I Think It Rains—encompassing diverse works of some 35 contemporary artists—is firstly concerned with laying out an aesthetic scenario touching on the immanent processes of art making, allowing for heterogeneous aesthetic methodologies to be perceived in their sophistication and subtleness. In other words, the works presented are assembled and brought into contact from the point of view of the processes and methodologies the artists utilize. Therefore, even though I Think It Rains does away with a pronounced “theme” or univocal “topic”, it does work around distinct concerns closely related to the question of how artists construct, conceptualize, and materialize their interests.
Another point of convergence lies in the issue of the place and function of artistic practice in contemporary society, and specifically in relation to various forces that condition and surround it: language, history, and memory, but also the logic of the “society of spectacle,” the dynamics of metropolitan urban developments or, yet again, the contradictions and paradoxes of “globalism.” The works then are thought of as micro-models of counter-realities—both moving within such scenarios, but also disrupting them. It is important to note that the works presented rarely adapt an illustrative, and much less a dogmatic stance towards such conditions, but rather absorb, assimilate and deflect them, estrange or reconfigure them.
As visitors enter the exhibition’s main hall they encounter Fiona Banner’s work Black Blind, which, inserted in a quasi-architectural gesture, confronts the visitor with its dark and shiny surfaces (consisting of hanging slices of large paper bands densely covered with graphite). In Banner’s work surfaces almost always cover up something that seeks to push through, less a formal exercise, than a material gesture on the dialectics of disclosing and hiding.
In Cattle Depot’s main exhibition hall, the work functions as an opener on further works that combine oblique and political undertones with precise formal morphologies. Such combination, or crossing, actualized in the various works of the exhibition, is understood as a necessary condition in order for the works to channel any kind of engaged semantic. This semantic, then, rarely materializes in direct ways, but takes into consideration the complex acts of viewing and reading, in other words: the politics of vision and space, or of speech and discourse. In this sense, I Think It Rains represents a form-ridden choreography of poetically condensed engagement with the world.
Ng Ka Chun Hei’s video Disappearance of Victoria Harbour Skyline documents the deconstruction of the highly charged image of the skyline, a process here miniaturized and framed as real-time theater on a monitor, ironically defying the equation of size and meaning: the artist re-built and re-staged the eponymous Hong Kong trademark with cardboard in one of the poorest districts of Hong Kong, thereby alluding, sarcastically, to the discrepancies of “life at the top” and “life at the bottom”. In what is more a discursive act brought forth by a low-key notion of participation than a simple happening, the Hong Kong brand gradually gets decomposed by street workers, lump collectors, passers-by with an existential need for the materials—an example of post-politics beyond plans, ideologies or doctrines? Kingsley Ng’s site-specific light and sound environment Moon . Gate is next, which was adapted to the location. Faint radio sounds float in and out of the space while the floor seems to be inhabited by the light flooding into the room through two large windows, depicting the leaves of the trees visible on the ‘outside’—a masterly but pure simulation. The work echoes the seeming ephemerality of the turning leaves of Gao Weigang’s table sculpture Manner of Speaking—eerie and theatrical as it appears first, it is a biting rendition or allegory of an abandoned study place with a nervously fluttering text book, a foundational text of classical Chinese Marxism by Liang Sou-ming (1893 – 1988), a philosopher, teacher, and leader in the Rural Reconstruction Movement in the late Qing Dynasty and early Republican eras of Chinese history. Leaves of a book there, tree leaves here: As the audience experiences Moon . Gate and its movements of leaves on the floor, they can hear, it appears, the rustling of the wind, only to realize that what one in fact hears is the noise of radio tuning. The radio, which tunes in and out of various channels, comes to represent sections of a city, an imponderable portrait of the fleeting movement of life in an almost immaterialized cityscape.
Simultaneity as principle is echoed in Fiete Stolte’s work Turn in the adjoining room compartment: stretched-out neon lights on the floor lead to a monitor turned on its back, which acts as a visual recession of space-within-space; in this work, which plays with spatial and temporal coordinates, the spectator is captured from above through a camera with a turning objective and is then repositioned as the figure looked upon—a reversal, which comes with the visual rhetoric of a clock brought about by the turning camera device. Simultaneity can be spatial, but also temporal, such as in the works by Kong Chun Hei, Choi Yan Chi and Vittorio Santoro: In the latter’s case—the work entitled Untitled (Mask), a male voice—not an arbitrary one, but that of James Lord, biographer of Giacometti, the Modernist artist per se—plays a vital role. The work consists of a whitewashed generic booth fitted with a two-way mirror and houses a table and vintage radio: the staged source of a monologue (compiled from a wealth of historical descriptions from the 1950s to the 1990s) on the African Kono mask, of the type of elongated masks, used in initiation rituals. Fluorescent tubes determine the view from both sides of the window portal resulting in a Postmodern game of peek-a-boo that queries the validity of the cultural processes through which one learns to ‘see’. As they fade in and out of illumination the viewers are by turn granted visual access through the structure and presented with their own reflection. This combination of elements—the sterile art setting, evocative vocal and ‘World Service’ implications of the device—pitch one along the ethnographic path between mystical notions of the ‘other’, and their (mis)appropriation in Western art practices, to the politics of authority and scientific protocol.
Historiography by artists as disclosure beyond academic protocols of know-ledge production is the focus also of Dust and Scratches by Kong Chun Hei: ten delicate drawings based on the voids—and not the images—of an undisclosed Super-8-Film return as re-filmed short loop in a projection nearby, a loop of traces, evoking the mechanisms of memory beyond its reconstruction or revocation through imagery. This might lead to the critical question of how gaps function within memory constructions that, too often, veer towards embellished fiction, both in personal contexts and in political rhetoric. In Yan Chi Choi’s deeply melancholic piece, A Desk to a Forever Reader, drowning books take center stage, with bubbles hinting at some remains of air, and possibly at the presence of ‘spirit’, unavoidably dematerializing or evaporating. Originating in the deep frustration around the pivotal historical moment of 1989 in Chinese history, the book here is reappearing—in what is a memento mori of culture—as the question mark put behind the notion of material culture and its shifts in the present digital age: What does remain? What will persist? The computer table—an IKEA furniture/prop—contextualizes such questions and lends it an appropriately contemporary context.
Unveiling histories: Filipa César’s two-part video installation Insert/Memogramma adds to this strand in the exhibition by referencing Castro Marim, a salt marsh in Portugal, a place where, over long stretches of time, trespassers of law were banned, not exactly a prison, but the space of outlaws. César reconstructs an untold story, both via a quasi-documentary approach, including six interviews on the history and the functioning of Castro Marim, that act as audio track on a curiously staged mound, a sort of anti-monument. This is supplemented by a smaller video, which stages, as fiction, two female protagonists roaming the salt march, in what appears to be a short movie in the style of Maya Deren—symptomatically related to the case of the last two detainees, lesbians, of 1966.
Many more works join such form-conscious investigation into scarcely mapped historical events or processes, heavy with continuing relevance for what makes up the always fractured contemporary reality. They are, in the post-documentary approach symptomatic of younger generations of artists, based on the careful reconstruction, planning, and layouting of diverse social, historical, and poetic discrepancies, and complicated through experimental techniques of estrangement and reconfiguration.
All in all, in the exhibition’s various works there is a pervading sense of a strong dialectic present between, on one hand, precise material dispositifs and consciously invested media, and on the other hand conceptual grids rich with historical, social or political undertones. A few more concern the reverberations of various forms of violence (Filipa César, Vittorio Santoro), the protocols of radicalized politics (as in Bani Abidi), or the effects of neoliberal urban development (Lau Ching Ping, Ng Ka Chun). Likewise, various works allow for a deeper reflection on the subliminally felt changes, which affect culture’s material base and material techniques, such as books (see the work of Alejandro Cesarco, Choi Yan-chi, or Annie Lai-Kuen Wan), or again works that, more onto-poetically, propose alternative notions of time, space, and consciousness, in direct or indirect opposition to the thriving globalist protocols of subjectivity (Pak Sheung-chuen, Enoch Cheung, or Muhanned Cader).
The exhibition looks, according to curator Daniel Kurjaković, at “how artists have developed succinct ways to question the relationships between history and histories, cognitive patterns or social behavior in the present and impulses for the future.” A fair number of works has been especially developed for or adapted to the site of Cattle Depot Artist Village, creating a sense of belonging and, again, engagement, not only on a thematic plane, but also concretely in both its spatial and social sense (see the work by Cally Yu with senior citizens of the urban area around Cattle Depot). The locale of Cattle Depot Artist Village, located within the multi-ethnic community of To Kwa Wan, becomes the larger field of reference, where multiple stories can reverberate, even beyond the limits of the six exhibition halls and the enclosed space of the Cattle Depot. Some works, then, connect such cultural specificity to the larger frame of critical artistic practices of various world regions.
I Think It Rains seeks to focus on the inherent operations of individual works—as does, in large parts, the newly published art bulletin Torrent by Burger Collection, presented on the occasion of the exhibition. This is, curatorially speaking, relevant as the relationship between the art works in the exhibition is set to explore an alternative geography that links artists from different regions primarily on the level of aesthetic methodologies—and less so through sociological markers. Reverberations and echoes—on the level of form, content, and process—are the reading devices that will expand the spectator’s understanding of an art exploring complexity (and sometimes artists have responded even within the exhibition itself to such mirroring and mise-en-abyme, like Enoch Cheung when creating in-situ “coffee drawings” that both reference various works exhibited as well as, simultaneously, the surrounding urban space of To Kwa Wan). Such complexity is, it seems, located both within the micro-dimension of everyday reality as well as the macro-frame of politics and history. Seeking a language of formal precision the exhibition is composed in such a way as to enable visitors to ponder upon serious matters without being weighed down by the mallet of morals, remaining able to create individual pathways that might lead to an ethical outlook on the contemporary world.