For his second solo show at ShanghArt Gallery, Shanghai-based artist Huang Kui took on existential and eternal questions of identity and life’s meaning. But “My Projector Is Focusing” was not adrift in speculative, superficial musings—it felt, at every level, as if it were borne of necessity rather than philosophical indulgence. Having spent the better part of the past three years recovering from a devastating accident that left him incapacitated and contemplating his own death, the artist created a show that was deeply personal, disturbingly graphic and laced with melancholy. Like Frida Kahlo, who suffered life-changing injuries in a 1925 road accident, Huang drew upon his accident to explore who he is and what is important in life. As the title of the show suggests, the works on display were part of the process of discovery rather than the end result.
The photographic series “Fictitiousness” (2010) finds Huang seemingly grappling with his own legacy. Charred outlines of his body are left on sidewalks, the walls of buildings and in his studio, like the chalk outlines of victims at a crime scene. Places that have left an impression on the artist in turn impel him to leave his own physical impression on them. In other photos from the series, his face, fading through a lack of definition, threatens to disappear into the background. If one has left no mark in the world, he seems to say, would anyone consider you to have actually been there, and did that world really exist? Without the conventional authority of a human guiding the scene, the viewer is instead forced to contemplate the significance of the surroundings. The series of saturated and high-contrast photographs have been altered to appear soft, like paintings, which contributes to the underlying sense of uncertainty.
The show was about self-discovery—a journey often fraught with red herrings and dead ends. The holistic “projection” of Huang’s title was not yet clear, and his works thus relied on tweaking and adjusting in order to obtain a focused viewpoint. “My Projector” was largely a scattershot show. For example, a wall devoted to a series of light-boxes, “The Thousand World” (2010), which displayed graphic, swirling, kaleidoscope-like images, seemed out of place within the largely figurative exhibition. Eπi+1=0 (2010), a video installation in the center of the gallery consisting of several small television screens stacked on top of each other, focused on different parts of Huang’s body, creating a fractured portrait of the artist. But as with “The Thousand World” series, Eπi+1=0 felt more like an afterthought.
Part of the problem was the glaring contrast between Huang’s new-media works and his series of skilled paintings, which highlight his obvious innate facility in the older medium. Whereas the photographs and video installations contemplate the broadest questions of identity, his “Probability” painting series (2010) takes an intensely personal look at the consequences of his accident. Paintings of his legs in metal braces, as well as a rendering of a cast after it was removed from his body, are unsettling reminders of the pain he suffered. Partial self-portraits of the artist lying in bed hint at his forced immobility. Further clues of the location of his traumatic incident are given in the remainder of the paintings, including a view of a wooden plank floor with a sizable hole. The facts of his accident—a fall—reveal themselves. These paintings are spare in composition, with a neutral, muted palette, but they are more successful than the other works in creating a spirited and pointed narrative of a man confronting his own mortality.
While it was the artist’s intention to include all the fruits of his labor from the past few years, having these different series side-by-side only highlighted the strengths of some creative avenues on the road to recovery, and the weaknesses of others. The show was intended to be about a man who is a work in progress, but some editing would have helped to create a clearer picture and a tauter, more convincing exhibition.