HU XIANGQIAN, Two Men, 2008, still from single-channel video: 3 min 41 sec. Courtesy the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York/Hong Kong. 

TANG YONGXIANGA Lot of Dark Blue Legs and Patches of Color, 2015, oil on canvas, 150 × 180 cm. Courtesy the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York/Hong Kong. 

Nocturnal Friendships

Lehmann Maupin
Hong Kong China

Throughout history, many philosophers—from Aristotle to Francis Bacon—have continuously asked the question, “What is friendship?” Despite the notion of “friendship” seeming to be a simple and fundamental component of our lives, philosophical interpretations of relationships vary from being a vital and sacred form of connection that can be shared between individuals to being a selfish tool for personal gain. German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s understanding of friendship was that of “tough love,” whereby, rather than only wanting the best for the other person, a true friend also hopes the other experiences obstacles and struggles.

“Nocturnal Friendships,” artist Liu Wei and art historian Bowen Li’s curatorial debut in Hong Kong, presents an alternative to Nietzsche’s concept of an ideal friendship. The title is in reference to shallow and insignificant relationships, which they term as “nocturnal.” Showcasing an assortment of “nocturnal friendships,” Lehmann Maupin’s Hong Kong location houses a dense display of 24 works on its walls, floors and across its gallery space.

Of the works from the seven Chinese artists included in the exhibition, Hu Xiangqian’s Two Men (2008) most clearly represents a link to meaningless, “nocturnal” friendships. Hu, who identifies as a “performer” (as opposed to a “performance artist”) and is influenced by Indian mystic Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh’s teachings on boredom, frequently explores ideas of the absurd—a theme that is seen in the four-minute video of Two Men. The performance literally shows two men, one covered in red spots, and the other in green spots, dancing together in the middle of the road. At various moments, the viewer sees a motorcyclist passing in the background, or one of the dancing men taking a misstep, ruining the fluidity of the scenes. Through the characters’ fatuous get-up, and their curious juxtaposition on the street, one senses a spontaneity and light-heartedness reminiscent of a young, mischievous friendship.

Another artist who explores relational complexity is Beijing-based figurative painter Tang Yongxiang. His two recent paintings, Patches of Color, Three Hands, and a Partition Line (2015) and A Lot of Dark Blue Legs and Patch of Color (2015), are covered in multiple layers of pastel blues and purples that reveal only certain body parts of human figures. The softness of the paint and the partial exposure of legs and arms might initially seem to suggest an erotic undertone, but in fact incite no such sensitivity. Instead, the images evoke innocence and calmness, and perhaps plays with the complications of lust and desire within platonic relationships.

PENG JIAN, Mountain Within Mountains, 2014, color on paper, 96 × 198 cm. Courtesy the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York/Hong Kong. 

Outside of these aforementioned works, however, the exhibition appears lost within the multifarious layers of “nocturnal” friendship. Peng Jian’s only work in the exhibition, Mountain Within Mountains (2014), is a large painting on paper depicting endless stacks of books and colored blocks at different angles and perspectives. It is stunning as a modern Chinese landscape painting, with a geometric and flat style similar to architectural paintings of the Song Dynasty (960–1279), but, unfortunately, it holds no link with the exhibition’s theme of friendship. Displayed against the strong geometric lines and shapes of Zhang Ruyi’s “Darkness” (2015), a mixed-media series on paper, one realizes how similar all these works are to the structural paintings of curator-artist Liu Wei’s own “Purple Air” series (2006– ).

While “Nocturnal Friendships” introduces a refreshing batch of young Chinese artists, the selected works and exhibition’s thematic concept do not sit well together. Thus, perhaps, the question of friendship is best left to philosophers to explore.  

“Nocturnal Friendships” is on view at Lehmann Maupin, Hong Kong, until August 22, 2015.

ZHANG RUYI, Darkness 3, 2015, mixed media on paper, 20 × 30 cm. Courtesy the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York/Hong Kong.