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Installation view of “Ritual of Synthesis,” at Gallery Exit, Hong Kong, 2019. Courtesy Gallery Exit.

Ritual of Synthesis

Gallery Exit
Hong Kong Singapore

“Photography is writing with light,” Hong Kong artist Siu Wai Hang told me with reference to the term’s Greek etymology, as he fed a narrow film strip back into the Super 8 camera that had abruptly stopped its staccato rhythm. Curated by Hilda Chan, “Ritual of Synthesis” at Gallery Exit showcased two Hong Kong artists—Siu and Li Hiu Wa—alongside Singapore-based artist Urich Lau. While the curatorial statement attested to a technical focus on “image-making methods” in the artists’ photographic practices, the thoughtfully selected works spoke to complementary and urgent themes, from stifled dissent to technological surveillance. 

Installation view of SIU WAI HANG’s Faces, 2019, super 8 film and projector, silver print, 50.8 × 60.9 cm, at “Ritual of Synthesis,” Gallery Exit, Hong Kong, 2019. Courtesy the artist.
Installation view of SIU WAI HANG’s Faces, 2019, super 8 film and projector, silver print, 50.8 × 60.9 cm, at “Ritual of Synthesis,” Gallery Exit, Hong Kong, 2019. Courtesy the artist.
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Clicking into gear again, Siu’s antiquated camera resumed its rapid fire of black-and-white headshots. Faces (2019) is a looped film of nearly 200 portraits Siu took in July at one of Hong Kong’s ongoing anti-extradition bill protests, which have resulted in violent clashes between police and protesters. The insistent line of faces are swallowed and spat out repeatedly, blurring recognition. Stills from Super 8 footage taken at local protests also appeared in Men on Men (2019), a narrow strip of film on a lightbox mounted opposite Faces. The hole-punched ribbon on the right side of the film recalls blockades used by police to stem crowds. This border does not separate each frame, so the rounded heads of citizens at the top of one still seamlessly merge with the unruly bodies in the image above, creating a pillar of protestors. These figures are contained thrice: by the barriers of the filmstrip, the frame of Siu’s camera lens, and the parameters of the lightbox, gesturing at the forces that restrict these dissenting bodies. 

Installation view of URICH LAU’s Spy Ball, 2019, sepak takraw ball, wall to floor projections, TV multiscreen surveillance, dimensions variable, at “Ritual of Synthesis,” Gallery Exit, Hong Kong, 2019. Courtesy the artist.
Installation view of URICH LAU’s Spy Ball, 2019, sepak takraw ball, wall to floor projections, TV multiscreen surveillance, dimensions variable, at “Ritual of Synthesis,” Gallery Exit, Hong Kong, 2019. Courtesy the artist.
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Documentation ominously morphed into surveillance further into the gallery. Urich Lau’s Spy Ball (2018) is composed of a sepak takraw, a small rattan kickball, with 11 compact cameras inserted into it, resembling an orange punctured by cloves. Suspended from the ceiling by a mass of wires, the Spy Ball cameras constantly track visitors’ movements, with footage from each live feed projected onto the wall and displayed on several monitors. Due to the glitches produced by cross-feeding these signals, visitors watch as their wavy bodies are sliced then spliced together again. More glitching is evident in Lau’s triptych Code File: Three Domes (2016), comprising photographs of Singapore’s three major public art museums—Singapore Art Museum, National Museum of Singapore, and National Gallery Singapore—that the artist had altered by inserting the National Arts Council’s mission statement into the code of the digital image files. This act critiques the cultural hegemony facilitated by Singapore’s predominantly state-funded arts ecology, while simultaneously highlighting the manipulable coding processes in digital photography. 

Installation view of LI HIU WA’s Fading Harbour, 2019, anthotype created from flame tree, 21 × 26 cm, at “Ritual of Synthesis,” Gallery Exit, Hong Kong, 2019. Courtesy the artist.
Installation view of LI HIU WA’s Fading Harbour, 2019, anthotype created from flame tree, 21 × 26 cm, at “Ritual of Synthesis,” Gallery Exit, Hong Kong, 2019. Courtesy the artist.
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Elsewhere, Li Hiu Wa’s photographs offered wistful meditations on temporal change. Fading Harbour (2019) is a small pale-pink and yellow anthotype print of a nondescript pool of water taken in Hong Kong. Made using the pulped flowers of the flame tree, exposure to light will eventually etiolate the image, possibly alluding to widespread unease among the port city’s residents regarding the erosion of local identity due to the encroachment of mainland China. The triptych of black-and-white photographs Tree and water stain IIII (all 2018), taken at the same location over the course of a year, feature identical compositions of a section of sidewalk with a small tree growing near a puddle and an oil stain on the kerb. The images capture the small changes wrought by the passing of time: the stain pales and a new shoot emerges. These quiet references to an individual’s movements through the city provided respite from the more politically charged works of Lau and Siu. 

“Writing with light” simplistically expresses the mechanism of photography, but not the purposes and agendas the medium can be made to serve. The strength of the exhibition was in its analysis of the latter, highlighting the various ways photography can capture transformation, document events, and support or subvert state control—betraying truth as much as it is beholden to it. Without dogma or didacticism, “Ritual of Synthesis” unfurled as a nuanced and multifaceted exploration of contemporary concerns relevant to Hong Kong and beyond that was at turns illuminating, intriguing, and unsettling. 

Leora Joy Jones is an editorial intern of ArtAsiaPacific.

Ritual of Synthesis” is on view at Gallery Exit, Hong Kong, until August 31, 2019.

To read more of ArtAsiaPacifics articles, visit our Digital Library.

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