JAMES T. HONGA Chinaman’s Chance (Dokdo and Senkaku), 2014, Film still of video: 12 min 50 sec. Courtesy the artist and Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin. 

2 or 3 Tigers

Germany Malaysia Singapore Japan Korea, South China
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Predator, conqueror, god—many qualities come to mind when considering one of nature’s most majestic creatures. Because of those traits, the tiger has, metaphorically, become an emblem of strength and economic dominance on the Asian continent. Tapping into the idea that the striped cat holds formidable power, curators Anselm Franke and Hyunjin Kim organized the show “2 or 3 Tigers” at Berlin’s Haus der Kulturen der Welt (HKW) as part of the exhibition series “100 Years of Now,” which aims to foster new sociopolitical ideas in art by linking our present political conditions to historical utopias. The show presented eight solo artists and a duo who describe the impact of colonial history on Asian national identities today.

Inspiring the show’s title and premise, the work One or Several Tigers (2017) by Singaporean multimedia artist Ho Tzu Nyen includes two video projections playing on opposite ends of a small, dark room at HKW. They show 3D animations—one of a human and the other of a tiger, both floating in outer space. The latter’s body is blown up like a balloon, and then deflates to leave a haggard tiger-skin rug. Simultaneously, the man’s face slowly takes on feline qualities. These transformations take place as a voice, speaking in wildly high and low pitches, narrates sinister tales from Malaysia’s colonial history. Ho’s fantastical scenes incite ruminations on the appropriation of the tiger as a symbol in 20th-century conquests: the Japanese troops who defeated British soldiers and went on to occupy Malaya and Singapore in 1942 were called “tigers.”

Elsewhere in the show, an overwhelming number of mostly screen-based works reveal further artistic visions of the past and future. Jane Jin Kaisen and Guston Sondin-Kung’s video The Woman, the Orphan, and the Tiger (2010) explores Japanese trafficking of Korean comfort women in the interwar period, while Korean filmmaker Park Chan-kyong quietly contemplates ideological martyrdom in Kyoto School (2017), where he juxtaposes short diary entries of a World War II kamikaze pilot with a monumental view of the Kegon “suicide” waterfall, which became an emblem of the Kyoto School philosophical movement that glorified self-sacrifice during the Pacific War.

Around the corner from Park’s somber multimedia collage, James T. Hong’s video A Chinaman’s Chance (Dokdo and Senkaku) (2014) takes on the contemporary island disputes between Japan and Korea over Dokdo, and between Japan and China over Senkaku. The Taiwanese-American artist shows his viewers a trivial feed of tourists, seagulls and ocean views of the islands, while voicing his thoughts of disdain on current power dynamics and senseless feuds over mundane territories.

A motley of digital works, from Minouk Lim’s three-channel video portrait S.O.S. – Adoptive Dissensus (2009) of restless souls along the banks of Seoul’s Han River, to Chia—Wei Hsu’s contact with the Chinese frog deity Marshal Tie Jia in Spirit-Writing (2016), quickly encumbered the visitor. A few installations provided relief: in Lim’s mixed-media sculptures, organic and artificial materials converge into foreign forms. Her bizarre Black Hole (2015)—a distorted lighting set made of plywood, feathers and a light stand—misconstrues our pre-digital history by filtering it through modern technology. These ominous qualities resonate with Lieko Shiga’s Portrait of Cultivation (2009), a photographic wallpaper in which an elderly Japanese couple glare at the viewer, with the man impaled by an entire tree though not appearing particularly bothered. Lieko Shiga’s horrifying image excerpts her transcendent photography of the invisible scars in the Tōhoku region, where inhabitants were hit hard by a tsunami in 2011.

The many realities that unfold in “2 or 3 Tigers” take their toll on the show’s visitors, but also on some artworks. Next to visual testimonies of silent agony and protest, Yuichiro Tamura’s rack of collected bomber jackets from the Korean war titled Hey Daddy, Hey Brother (2017), or the plaster relief of a dead tiger Come Back Home (2007) by Im Heung-soon, are almost too trivial for display. The exhibition aimed to disrupt, confuse, entangle—but it also made the tiger chase its own tail: who was the real beast? It might have been the show, and the visitors its prey.

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