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Installation view of “To See the Forest and the Trees” at Asia Society Hong Kong Center, 2019. Courtesy the artists and Asia Society Hong Kong Center.

To See the Forest and the Trees

Asia Society Hong Kong Center
Hong Kong

At the entrance of Asia Society, a woody blend of citrus and seaweed hung heavy in the air. An image of windswept shrubs, huddled beneath leafless, spectral branches, jostled with impassive barricades bordering a dirt-ridden pavement: beacons of geometry in an uneasy tableau. A snapshot of a city resting on the ragged exhale of nature’s self-destruction revealed itself.

These pensive scenes were found in South Ho’s photograph series Whiteness of Trees (2018) and complemented by Haley van Oosten’s scent-based installation Ripening of Mangosteen: A Scent Offering in Fragments (2019). These works, along with the other 16 pieces in the group exhibition “To See the Forest and the Trees,” on view at Asia Society and curated by Joyce Wong and Katherine Don, pay tribute to the environmental destruction wreaked upon Hong Kong by Typhoon Mangkhut in 2018. However, the show—its title a subversive play on the expression “can’t see the forest for the trees,” which derides those who fixate on detail while neglecting the big picture—was far from a single-minded arboreal memento mori. Instead, subjects varied from the aftereffects of a typhoon to the promotion of rainforest conservation, and encouraged visitors to see both the micro and the macroscopic. Yet it was perhaps this well-intentioned desire to pitch nature’s importance from all possible angles that eroded the exhibition’s cohesion at times. 

SOUTH HO, Whiteness of Trees – XXIV, 2018, archival pigment print, 85 × 100 cm. Courtesy the artist.

The works that were most resonant were those that touched upon themes of vanishing flora in connection with the modernization and changes of Hong Kong in the Anthropocene. Vvzela Kook’s A Travel to Hung Heung Loo in Dream (2019), which maps the historic dendrology of maritime Hong Kong in romantic pastels, is an affectionate elegy to the trees that once populated Hong Kong. In both style and title—“Hung Heung Loo” being an ancient epithet for Hong Kong—the painting recalls the Qing dynasty’s devotion to nature. But despite its hazy charm, the painting confronts viewers with a condemning question: Where are those trees now?

VVZELA KOOK, A Travel to Hung Heung Loo in Dream, 2019, watercolor, watercolor pencil and pencil on paper, 160 × 67 cm. Courtesy the artist.

Following Kook’s gentle lament for Hong Kong’s lost historic ecology, viewers encountered James Prosek’s Hong Kong Flora and Fauna (2019), a 16-meter long mock field guide saturated with numbered, silhouetted plants and animals but lacking the corresponding identification keys. With this type of meticulous yet uninformative labeling, Prosek’s mural engages viewers in an impossible guessing game, inviting reflection on how much of nature goes unnoticed in modern life. Similarly admonishing is Frank Tang’s Pocket Park series (2018), topographical illustrations of three micro green spaces nestled around the dense urbanity of Wan Chai. Using ink, watercolor, and pencil color, Tang depicts emaciated-looking potted greenery crammed haphazardly among playground detritus, which calls for a re-evaluation of the concept of forcing nature into small “pockets”—simultaneously lauding the effort and critical of the lackluster results. 

JAMES PROSEK, Hong Kong Flora and Fauna, 2019, site-specific mural, 342 × 1,615 cm. Courtesy the artist.
JAMES PROSEK, Hong Kong Flora and Fauna, 2019, site-specific mural, 342 × 1,615 cm. Courtesy the artist.
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These intimate and geographically-specific works by Kook, Prosek, and Tang jostled against others that were more abstract in their statements on nature, such as the oil-on-canvas portraits of French tree trunks by Natee Utarit. AdrianElaina, and Jean (all 2017) are self-professed homages to 19th-century painter Théodore Rousseau, a realist known for landscapes steeped in softly-lit melancholia. For all their realism and anthropomorphic titles, however, Utarit’s renditions of the Fontainebleau trees feel dispassionate, falling short of his Rousseau ambitions. Austere and conveying prominent French influences, the paintings seem out of place, tentatively connected to the rest of the show only by its tree-centricity.

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In a climactic coda to the exhibition, Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla’s short film The Great Silence (2014) lends a humanizing voice to the endangered parrots of Rio’s Abajo forest. Titled melodramatically after the “great silence” of outer space, it frames humans as intrepid outward explorers and parrots as their neglected earthbound wards. Between vivid shots of fluttering foliage, the film’s message is poetically clear and serves as the exhibition’s final, emphatic plea for change: “Soon this rainforest may be as silent as the rest of the universe.” 

“To See the Forest and the Trees” was curated around the desire to impress the importance of conservation upon its visitors, and succeeded in no small measure. Though links between individual works were subtle and, at times, tenuous, each piece was geared towards the appreciation or protection of nature—an engaging and commendable endeavor. 

Kate Lau is an editorial intern of ArtAsiaPacific.

To See the Forest and the Trees” is on view at Asia Society Hong Kong Center until September 8, 2019. 

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