Installation view of “Annals of Floating Island” at Hanart TZ Gallery, Hong Kong, 2016. Courtesy Hanart TZ Gallery. 

Annals of Floating Island

Hanart TZ Gallery
Hong Kong China

“Annals of Floating Island,” a group exhibition featuring eight emerging Chinese artists and co-curated by Song Zhenxi and Zhang Cheng, showcases over twenty works involving a wide variety of media, including installation, mixed media, video, photography, ink on paper, painting and books. All participating artists and curators, save for Tong Yixin who graduated from New York University, are alumni of the China Academy of Art in Hangzhou and Shanghai.

GONG XU, The Bird People–G4, 2015, mixed media, 52 × 52 cm. Courtesy Hanart TZ Gallery, Hong Kong.
GONG XU, The Bird People–G4, 2015, mixed media, 52 × 52 cm. Courtesy Hanart TZ Gallery, Hong Kong.

According to the show’s curators, the young mainland artists in the show share a sense of uncertainty in this era of information overload, the internet and consumerist society. The image of a floating island, described in the curatorial statement as a “symbol of a small sanctuary for hope and imagination within these ‘uncertain’ times,” guided the curation of the exhibition.

The opening room presents three mixed-media works from Gong Xu’s series “The Bird People” (2015). Composed of layers of glass and canvas, each piece depicts human-avian hybrids, three multicolored geckos, Chinese calligraphy and precise circles superimposed on various ocean scenes. The coexistence of chaos and precision create a union between the East and the West—the former represented by the ocean, geckos and the written characters, and the latter symbolized by the Renaissance-style figures and circles reminiscent of Da Vinci’s meticulous sketches. A more comical work by Xu, Surprise: Fallen Knight (2015), features a falling knight and his horse, who are brought to life through accompanying speech bubbles. In lowercase letters, the horse proclaims “you jump i jump!’ and the knight says “i’m falling!” which evoke a surreal sensation, made all the more so by the work’s colorful palette.

Further exploring themes involving the West are two rustic installations by Zhu Xi. Laboratory for Metamorphosis (2014) contains a drawing of a lizard next to a ring stand that is holding light bulbs, a separatory funnel filled with salt and butterfly carcasses, and a small tree branch, all within a dark wooden box with a glass front, alluding to unsanctioned and unethical scientific experiments. Lit by a solitary light bulb, an open violin case placed upon a plinth is central to Zhu Xi’s second installation, A.D. 117 (2009). Placed within one side of the case, and appearing as though emerging from a pool of water, is a sculpture of the upper body of a horse brutally impaled by an arrow. The other half of the case contains a sheet of metal imprinted with the phrase “ROMA A.D. 117” and boasts a cut-out map of the Roman Empire in 117 CE, when its reign was at its largest, geographically. The dark wood and dim lighting creates an abandoned, dusty, and omnipresent feel to the works.

ZHU XILaboratory for Metamorphosis, 2014, instllation: iron, light bulb, paper, butterfly, sugar, glass beaker and copper, 85 × 65 × 25 cm. Courtesy Hanart TZ Gallery, Hong Kong. 

Similarly eerie and ominous is Shao Wenhuan’s “Like Something that Never Happened” (2013–16), a series of three images that are calm yet foreboding. Most literally reflecting the title of the Hanart show out of all the works on display, the images are digitally manipulated photographs of lone islands emerging from a misty sea. The silvery hue, achieved by gelatin silver on satin, is stark and mysterious, and the monochrome palette further evokes a sense of isolation. The lonely, otherworldly photographs of Shao evoke a creepy feel akin to Zhu’s installations.

Pirate (2014), a single-channel video by Feng Chen, which hangs just behind the gallery entrance, draws in visitors with its faint sound. Prefaced by the phrase “Please close one eye to see this movie” and a subsequent sequence in which a pirate discusses the difficulty of seeing through a singular eye, the video follows his journey through different places, but shot in such a way that the background imagery is constantly oscillating. The work is an audiovisual attempt at an autostereogram, the “hidden image” optical illusion that not all people are able to perceive. The disjunction between the shaking landscape and the still figure presents a discontinuous sensory experience that is, in turn, a commentary on the cultural degradation brought about by an increasingly globalized world. Similarly playing with sensation and perception is another work by Feng Chen entitled C (2016). Enclosed in a black gilded frame, a small square piece of paper shifts in color from grey to pink as temperatures fluctuate, due to the presence of thermal ink. This piece surprises and creates a perceptual illusion for viewers expecting a static work.

SHAO WENHUANLike Something that Never Happened 1, 2013–16, 3D rendering with integrated techniques, gelatin silver on satin, 50 × 60 cm. Courtesy Hanart TZ Gallery, Hong Kong. 

On the other side of the room, three large rectangular canvas works take up the wide expanse of a wall in the main space. Gong Xu’s Tales of the Broken Tower 2 (2012) features a floating whale sprouting six spikey insect legs that are piercing an oil can and spilling its contents into the ocean. A deity on a cloud watches as a griffin-like figure and three flying fish surround the whale and seem to confer about the destructive event. Accompanying labels written in Chinese that describe the creatures simultaneously prevent and create ambiguity in its playful attempt to present a truthful narrative. In contrast to this vibrant chaos, two of Hong Dan’s abstract mixed-media canvases, Memory Space (2015) and Imitation Amber (2015), are largely devoid of color. Observing his works evoke the sensation of falling into oblivion and urges one to contemplate on the disappearing divide between “absolute reality” and “absolute fiction.”

TONG YIXIN, Wind-speed Indicator, 2013, soft-cover book, 739 pages, 15 × 21 cm. Courtesy Hanart TZ Gallery, Hong Kong. 

Also tackling the intermingling of the virtual and the real are four books by Tong Yixin. One book, Wind-speed Indicator (2013), is opened to a spread with a page featuring a screenshot of the artist’s Instagram photo album, which shows multiple images of astronaut helmets. The other page of the spread contains a single Instagram post with a photograph of several people looking up at a string-attached balloon that is cut out of the frame. Due to the general stereotype that a book is a credible and objective source of information, the choice to employ it as an artistic medium is interesting. However, Tong’s works display a playful exploration of perspectives by incorporating a virtual medium, Instagram, into the physical realm of books.

GUO XI and ZHANG JIANLING, The Grand Voyage, 2014– , installation: video, photography, objects, texts, prints and sound, dimensions variable. Courtesy Hanart TZ Gallery, Hong Kong. 

In a separate, entirely pink room, a collaboration between Guo Xi and Zhang Jianling features a single exhibit titled pink room, which is a part of their series “The Grand Voyage: π Day" (2016), an accumulation of objects, photography, videos, text and artist books that document their 86-day journey around the globe. Included among them is a list of 12 prophecies that the artist-duo wrote down before setting off on their travels, indicating what they would see or hear on the journey. The selection of materials presenting the “reality” of their trip, therefore, blurs the line between fiction and truth. Near the ceiling, the words “Today the daily programme,” in large, blue repetitive print on a thick yellow line, encircles the room. It is interesting to note that the series’ name includes the pi symbol, which seems to represent the erratic and unquantifiable nature of the world, no matter how interconnected and globalized it may be. Newspapers, Polaroid photographs and a fever pill are pinned on the walls, evocative of a detective’s investigation board detailing an unsolved case.

An exhibition that seamlessly ties together the work of eight artists and the minds of two curators is an impressive feat. With the core idea of disappearing boundaries between reality and fiction guiding the show, each artist found a unique way of expressing their ideas surrounding the theme, including the distortion of perception and sensory experience, as well as an explosion of creativity and socially critical works.