Photography has been around for less than two centuries; yet in a short span of time, in comparison to other forms of image making, there have been astounding leaps in the understanding and appreciation of the photographic image. In its first century, photography was commonly rejected as an art form on the basis of its mechanical nature. Yet as artists began to take up the medium, it was gradually elevated from a purely technical pursuit to one of artistic value.
Six current exhibitions in Hong Kong exemplify the notion of photography as an artistic medium. In the works of six photographers we see distinctly different approaches and innovative ways of exploiting photography as a means of expressing individuality and exploring various concepts.
In the heart of Hong Kong’s Central district, Ben Brown Fine Arts is presenting a solo exhibition of Israeli artist Ori Gersht, entitled “On Reflection”(5/16–7/11). In a beautiful display that showcases his sharp technical ability, Gersht has captured the split-second moment of mirrors shattering using high-speed photography. Each image shows a mirror reflecting one of three beautifully arranged floral still-lifes, which Gersht recreated from a trio of paintings by 16th-century Flemish painter Jan Brueghel the Elder. This body of work explores Gersht’s ongoing interest in the history, significance and metaphorical concepts of still-life painting.
In viewing Gersht’s works, what we see becomes a blur of the real and the perceived. The reflected flowers are fake—made of plastic and silk—and the arrangement is, thus, a construction of fantasy. The mirrors are real and the reflections true; yet the precise moment portrayed in the final prints, including On Reflection, Material: After J. Brueghel the Elder E01 (2014), distorts reality into the realm of fiction. The artist focused his aperture not on the reflection of the flowers, but on the surface of the glass mirrors. This has resulted in a fuzzy image of flowers on puzzlingly textured mirror shards—a consequence of applying electrocution to obliterate the glass.
In a joint show at the Hong Kong outpost of Lehmann Maupin (5/21–6/27), the sumptuous images of German artist and fashion photographer Juergen Teller share a space with sculptures by Chinese artist Xiang Jing. Alongside Xiang’s fiberglass sculptures of nude, sometimes hairless, female figures are Teller’s oversized photographs, which feature close-ups of luxurious dishes from the fanciful restaurant menu of Hotel II Pellicano, on the Tuscan coast of Porto Ercole, Italy.
In Teller’s Food No. 18, Hotel II Pellicano 2010 and Food No. 116, Hotel II Pellicano 2010 (both 2010), the extravagant display of Italian cuisine becomes an abject experience. Octopus tentacles, raspberries and other vibrant ingredients emphasize and push the boundaries of opulent food consumption, producing an almost gut-wrenching reaction. Teller’s grotesquely glossy photographs of the lavish spread urge viewers to see the experience of fine dining in a different light.
Hong Kong has never looked so tranquil than in the photographs of Peter Steinhauer, currently on view at Contemporary By Angela Li. Until moving to San Francisco in 2014, Steinhauer had spent 20 years living in Asia, with nine of them in the Fragrant Harbor. The monochromatic photographs in his exhibition, “Hong Kong Surface Unseen” (5/21–6/27), tease out the overlooked magnificence that exists within the chaotic urban density of this fast, ever-changing city.
In Taikoo Windows, Hong Kong–2009 (2009), Peter Steinhauer captures the essence of Hong Kong’s early residential high rises, exposing the grittiness and decay of the now weathered concrete flats. Compact balconies high above the ground, with laundry hanging over ledges, as well as external air conditioning units, are characteristic of 1960s and ’70s Hong Kong. Meanwhile, One Thousand Flats Hong Kong–2013 (2013) grasps the solemn mood of the modern residential architecture in Hong Kong. The gridded structures of the cramped and ostensibly identical high-rise flats seem to shoot to the sky with no beginning or end. It is an organized chaos—silenced in the stillness of a single photograph.
Over at Pearl Lam Galleries SOHO, an exhibition is being held of works by young Chinese artist Ma Yujiang (5/29–7/11). Ma explores his personal experiences of displacement—of location and identity—by manipulating original archival photographs from World War II. Through the act of erasing violence and actions of war from these old photographs, Ma presents a neutralized version of battlegrounds such as the beaches of Normandy and Okinawa, as well as Hong Kong’s Victoria Harbor, restoring the nature of the respective sites to its state before the destruction and bloodshed.
In June 6, 1944, Omaha Beach, Normandy Landings 01 (2014–15), soldiers disembarking for the beachside are digitally “cleansed” from the original photograph—and, instead, are seen hanging on an opposing wall in the gallery—leaving a bare landscape of just water and sand. Moments of serenity ooze from these peculiar photographs, which retain their vintage historical appearance but appear eerily displaced owing to erased elements.
On the south side of Hong Kong Island, Blindspot Gallery is showcasing six photographic series by Chinese artist Zhang Xiao, entitled “About My Hometown” (5/16–6/27), centered on the theme of “home.” Through an eclectic mix of styles and photography techniques, Zhang recalls childhood memories and experiences of his birthplace, Yantai, in Shandong province.
“Living” (2014–15) is a series of self-portraits, in which the artist is seen posing with a daily newspaper. He is imitating a routine task that is performed by many retired elderly people living away from their hometown (including Zhang’s mother), who are required to provide photographic evidence of their existence in order to obtain pension funds. The black-and-white and sepia-toned photo collages that comprise the “Shift” series (2012) are created using instant film emulsion lifts, which give the works a translucent, ethereal appearance. Eldest Sister in Her Barber Shop (2012) portrays a faint image of a woman sitting casually in a barber chair, surrounded by tools, equipment, and even reference hair-model photographs. The fragility of the emulsion lifts is evident in the wrinkles, overlaps and haphazard assemblages of the fragmented collage pieces. Taken together, the works on show reflect what Zhang perceives as the rapid and fleeting transformations of contemporary life in China.
At Hong Kong’s newly established The Empty Gallery, the sublime photographs of Indian-American photographer Amit Desai illuminate the walls, exuding a collective energy that resonates throughout the darkened space. “Transcendance” is Desai’s response to witnessing the aftermath of the 2008 global financial crisis, which led to the shutting down of his father’s small pill-coating factory. In the photographs, Desai and a posse of New York dancers can be seen entering the factory, embarking on an emotional, resplendent journey under dazzling disco lights and a smog of liquid nitrogen.
In Adante (2010), a young boy dressed in a suit and bow tie is caught mid-jump, his legs tucked and arms flung out. In this moment nothing else seems to matter except him and the music that he is presumably dancing to. Desai’s 19 richly saturated images capture the human body in mid-motion, in a moment of energetic release. In the factory-turned-disco, the turmoil of reality is forgotten, or perhaps ignored, and a temporary escape is found through the emotional expression of dance.
“On Reflection” is on view at Ben Brown Fine Arts until July 11, 2015.
Juergen Teller’s photographic works are on view at Lehmann Maupin until June 27, 2015.
“Hong Kong Surface Unseen” is on view at Contemporary By Angela Li until June 27, 2015.
“Cang Mang” is on view at Pearl Lam Galleries SOHO until July 11, 2015.
Wong Chuk Hang and Tin Wan
“About My Hometown” is on view at Blindspot Gallery until June 27, 2015.
“Transcendance” is on view at The Empty Gallery until August, 2015.
Denise Tsui is assistant editor at ArtAsiaPacific.