The last show at Hong Kong’s Input/Output gallery, which closed its doors on August 5, showcased some new and some not so new media art by Beijing-based Tian Xiao Lei, Kyoto-based Naoko Tosa and a Spanish research group (consisting of digital artists, Sergi Jordà, Martin Kalten Brunner, Günter Geiger and Marcos Alonso).
Among the newer works, at the front of the gallery was Naoko Tosa’s “Torso” series (2012), in which the artist conceives of the human torso as a receptacle for cultural contents. Combining motifs and imagery from her earlier works into iridescent photographic collages, Tosa presents entities both alive and dead, merging signifiers of old and new, art and technology, and “Eastern and Western cultures” (according to the press release). In Torso 11 “Hong Kong” the upper half of a slender, silhouetted human form set against a pitch black background serves as the vessel for these contents, which here are aerial and street views of Hong Kong’s buildings, condensed in a dizzying, Escher-like maze. The collage is then overlaid with fluorescent graffiti of swirling multi-color clouds. Four demons, one in the bottom, upper, left and right quadrants of the outlined torso, glare menacingly toward the center of the image, where one sees a girl seated oddly at ease amid the turmoil. Hong Kong may, at a glance, appear to be a singularly commerce-driven society, but this image of Hong Kong doesn’t take into account the deep-rooted traditions concealed by the territory’s impressive skyline—for instance, the customary consultation of feng shui experts on building projects, even by large corporations. Such contradictions find a happy marriage in the energetic yet balanced fusion of Tosa’s works.
In the center of the exhibition space was the 2008 Prix Ars Electronica Golden Nica prize-winning Reactable (2003), an early version of the multi-user musical instrument conceived by the team of creatives from the Pompeu Fabra University. Standing about four feet high and four feet across, the drum-shaped apparatus was the show’s biggest drawcard. On top of its blue, luminescent surface, transparent cubes and disks are scattered, which can be manipulated by hand to produce and alter the flux, rate and intensity of a preprogrammed set of rhythms and melodies. During the opening on June 13, a couple of local DJs came to try out the unique musical device; however, given only the most basic operating instructions they were nonplussed by the results. There is apparently a steep learning curve to mastering the Reactable, suitable for only the most dedicated music geeks. However, evident in videos available on the website of a commercial spin-off company of the same name, the customizability of the instrument lends itself to a near endless number of possible electronic audio flows, and found sound or audio track mash-ups. For those who couldn’t shell out the sticker price of HKD 526,000 (USD 67,800), Reactable was also available for rent from the gallery, and there is already a Reactable-inspired music application for iOS and Android devices, for a much more accessible $78.
Tian Xiao Lei’s series of circular grayscale digital paintings (“Reconstructed Landscape Series,” 2010), lining the back walls of the gallery, are reminiscent of children’s picture books, presenting fantastical landscapes in which the vestiges of mankind—small, tucked-away hilltop huts—are dwarfed by the enormity of supernatural entities: a terrain-roaming octopus spewing clouds of inky smog, an oil-devouring mosquito the size of a drilling rig, flying islands carried by three-headed turtles or crawling mountains, which are in fact gargantuan snails. According to the press release, these images were inspired by the ancient Chinese mythological text Shan Hai Jing (“Classic of Mountains and Seas,” c. 3rd century BCE–2nd century ACE), which details the geography of pre-Qin China where its inhabitants—humans, animals and mythical creatures—live side by side in relative harmony. However, this idea of harmony between humans and nature is replaced in Tian’s series by a one-sided, compensatory gesture that favors the dominating and sometimes destructive aspects of the natural elements, which demands from the viewer humility over hubris.
While Reactable dissects music into minute parts that can be manipulated with equal success by both professional musicians and complete novices (no painstakingly honed motor skills are required to master the instrument only an appreciation for the music), both Tosa and Tian’s digital compositions seek to consolidate aspects of contemporary life, seemingly at odds with each other, into a universal narrative connecting different cultures from different times in history. This is done directly in Tian’s phantasmagoric landscapes, while Tosa, by choosing the physical body as the thing that independently contains and transmits culture, subtly hints at an ancient collective unconscious that is not learned but inherent and perhaps, in this way, traverses all cultures.
Gallery officer Alexa Chow told ArtAsiaPacific that after moving out of their Tai Ping Shan Street space, Input/Output will focus more on their commercial projects, such as facilitating commissions of artists by private businesses, which has always been an aspect of their activities. However, according to Chow, Input/Output “will continue to produce pop-up exhibitions of new media art in public venues and institutions,” following its original mission to provide a critical platform for digital artists in Hong Kong.