All that glitters is not gold, or so the saying goes. This ideology is explored by art critic and curator Inti Guerrero in the exhibition “Clamour Can Melt Gold,” currently on view at Edouard Malingue Gallery, Hong Kong. The title, a translation from a Chinese idiom (“眾口鑠金”), is believed to have been used by historic revolutionary Sun Yat-sen (1866–1925) to indicate that the voices of the masses can obfuscate the truth. Through drawings, sculptures and installations, the exhibition examines the moral and social implications of gold, tackling the subject using two overlapping thematic threads. On one hand, the activities involved in the processing of gold—mining, extracting and manufacturing—are considered in terms of the impact they place on laborers and the surrounding landscape. On the other hand, the symbolism, economic consumption and monetary value of gold are placed under scrutiny.
Situated in a recessed alcove next to the gallery entrance is He Xiangyu’s Wisdom Tower (2013), a miniature Chinese pagoda constructed using the artist’s four wisdom teeth—polished to a shiny white—stacked together and sandwiched between a roof and base that are crafted from pure gold. The use of 99.9-percent pure gold is a deliberate attempt to draw attention to its high economic worth. In contrast, the teeth serve as a subtle reminder that the success of ambitious architectural projects is built on the effort of laborers, and oftentimes those whose lives get lost during the construction of these monumental structures.
Chilean artist Alfredo Jaar continues on the theme of gold’s perceived value in an especially large body of work, which was inspired by his visit to Serra Pelada, an open cast gold mine located in northeastern Brazil, during the mid-1980s. Jaar’s photography and video pieces have a distinct connection to the idea of gold, despite it not being physically featured in any of the works. Jaar’s video Introduction to a Distant World (1985) is particularly mesmerizing, showing an orderly chaos within winding lines of dirt-encrusted miners trudging uphill, interspersed with shots of a miner’s hands panning for gold in a rhythmic manner. Accompanied by three sprawling, two-meter-wide pigment prints that comprise Rushes, 1986–2015 (2015)—in which the rising prices of gold in Hong Kong and Shanghai flank an aerial shot of Serra Pelada—Introduction to a Distant World further emphasizes the contradiction between gold’s commanding market price (which is currently hovering around USD 1,135 per ounce) and the appalling conditions of the miners who are made to work nonstop to extract the precious metal.
Similarly to Jaar, Vietnamese-born Danish artist Danh Vō questions the value of gold in his work—though in a more playful manner. Coke (2014) is an innocuous-seeming cardboard box placed on its side, emblazoned with the Coca-Cola logo in brilliant gold leaf. The box is granted prime position in the center of the main gallery space. It is placed atop a tall pedestal, which immediately elevates the status of the box, from being mere discarded packaging to an object of reverence. Vō meditates upon the importance of gold as a signifier of wealth—does covering any item in gold render it immediately valuable? Or will vestiges of the item’s original, humble value remain?
Nearby, Hong Kong artists Kwan Sheung Chi and Wong Wai Yin challenge viewers to consider the relationship between gold and our own morals. To Defend the Core Values is the Core of the Core Values (2012)—the two artists’ collaborative installation featuring a large, solid gold coin, one video and miscellaneous objects—explores the significance of gold’s perceived value. In one of the videos, filmed on June 4, 2012, the artists critique the fragility of one’s inner character when presented with the choice to keep or discard a large, solid gold coin—meant to symbolize Hong Kong’s core values as a society—into the city’s Victoria Harbour. The video documents Leung Kwok Hung, a local Hong Kong politician known for his radical actions, being presented with this decision. After a long period of deliberation, Leung chooses to keep the coin to help repay legal costs incurred in his own political activities, suggesting that to use the gold coin for its financial value is better than throwing it into the ocean. Leung comments on the perception of Hong Kong as a cash-obsessed, fast-paced capitalist society, and that by keeping the coin he simply reflected this mind-set. This forces one to consider how even the most radical people can be softened or their approach changed by the temptation of money, further emphasizing our obsession with gold.
Situated towards the back of the gallery space is Regina Jose Galindo’s video Looting (2010), depicting the artist having pure Guatemalan gold inserted into her molars, which she then carried back to Germany, where the fillings in her teeth were later extracted. Her passage between Guatemala and Germany is in reference to the historical looting perpetrated by European colonialists in the gold-rich regions of the Americas. It also pertains to present-day issues surrounding smugglers and dealers, and the lengths they would often go in order to illegally traffic items across country borders, often at the expense of the “mules” they employ.
The works throughout the exhibition broach the issue of gold’s effect on humanity. The shared motif of teeth in Galindo’s work and He’s Wisdom Tower, remind viewers that the consumption and production of gold are inextricably linked, emphasizing that gold is more than just about it being a precious metal or about its financial value. The show encourages viewers to contemplate the genuine importance and necessity of gold in both our consumerist world and everyday lives.
“Clamour Can Melt Gold” is on view at Edouard Malingue, Hong Kong, until September 11, 2015.