HALLEY CHENG, Mirror, 2017, watercolor on paper, 86 × 86 cm. Courtesy the artist and Galerie Ora-Ora, Hong Kong.


Halley Cheng

Galerie Ora-Ora
Hong Kong

Though many attempt to create overtly political art, few truly manage to hit the nail on the head. One slight misstep, and it easily falls into the category of kitsch; done too subtly, and the artist could be faulted for forcing meaning where there is none. Worse still, one could be seen as taking advantage of the newsworthiness of political incidents or tragedies, or unwittingly wade into controversy with a less-than-sensitive approach to the subject.

Young artist Halley Cheng is the latest to venture into this field. Given the state of Hong Kong’s political stagnation in recent years, it was perhaps only natural that an artist who spent his formative years in the city would find it difficult to put a lid on the sentiments stemming from such developments, and keep them from spilling into his art. Luckily, Cheng is not alone: Chow Chun-fai, Kacey Wong, Sampson Wong and others have all chosen to embed undisguised responses to political and social controversies in their work, and 31-year-old Cheng is following in their footsteps. This was seen in one of Cheng’s acrylic paintings on view at Art Basel Hong Kong earlier this year—Woman in the Coffin(2017) depicts pro-Beijing politician Regina Ip lying in a “coffin-sized cubicle.” Ip’s demonstration, which happened during her bid to lead the port city’s government, was largely seen as distasteful, since these cubicles were the realities faced by many impoverished residents in Hong Kong. The photos of Ip in the “coffin” have inspired memes, parodies—and in Cheng’s case, art.

Just months later, as the typhoon-plagued summer was in its final phases, Cheng returned with a solo exhibition at Hong Kong’s Galerie Ora-Ora. This time, the approach was more oblique and refined, as the show’s press materials acknowledge: “In subtle response to oppositional, fragmented positions, Halley Cheng investigates a city where the players may be caught in self-delusion.” The theme was rooted in a Rubik’s cube, an analogy for the ever-shifting state of affairs with an immutable fixed core. As realities become increasingly distorted in Hong Kong (and across the world), Cheng struggles to hold his ground and make sense of his own perceptions and reactions to these events. The most representative work on show was The Mirror (2017), an abstract piece with stunning jagged fragments painted in soft grays and pastels, depicting torn, weathered pamphlet bits strewn across a mirror in a careless fashion. Cheng’s other creations in the exhibition toe the line between corporeality and abstraction, indicating a step up in sophistication compared to the blunt treatment of his subject in Woman in the Coffin.

HALLEY CHENG, VX, 2017, watercolor on paper, 55 × 41 cm. Courtesy the artist and Galerie Ora-Ora, Hong Kong.

While the subject matter of Cheng’s works is often unabashedly political, his works adopt a dream-like, melancholic quality, rarely deviating from murky shades of gray, brown and purple reminiscent of a bleak winter. Perhaps this was also an allusion to the state of Hong Kong’s politics and society. In VX(2017), a watercolor painting of airplanes that look as though they are about to collide in flight, references are made to the city’s controversial third airport runway, which is feared by many critics to be a white elephant. H+ and  O (both 2017) poke fun at a fireworks showcase that was meant to depict “the name of a certain country and that of a certain city side by side 20 times.” In these unambiguous portrayals of this year’s 20th-anniversary celebrations of Hong Kong’s handover of sovereignty from Britain to China, Cheng successfully encapsulates on his canvas the blotchy, rain-splattered mess of fireworks marred by the thunderstorms that accompanied the occasion—as though even nature itself felt compelled to protest the event.

Cheng also explores Hong Kong’s “one country, two systems” arrangement with China in Projection Museum (2015), a series of slideshows on a speech that former Chinese president Jiang Zemin gave during the city’s handover ceremony on July 1, 1997. Key phrases depicted as subtitles in the slides—“long term prosperity and stability,” “Basic Law,” “a splendid future,” “gradually develop a democratic system”—all ring hollow now in light of Beijing’s increasing encroachment on the rights enjoyed by the city, and stand in stark contrast to the rosy, scarlet backdrop.

HALLEY CHENGH+, 2017, acrylic on linen, 30 × 40 cm. Courtesy the artist and Galerie Ora-Ora, Hong Kong.

HALLEY CHENG, 中O, 2017, acrylic on linen, 30 × 40 cm. Courtesy the artist and Galerie Ora-Ora, Hong Kong.

Other works, such as Sport and Inflatable Horror No. 1 (both 2017), pivoted to global events: Parisian demonstrators being served “a forehand volley on a teargas canister,” and a decoy army tank deflating against a wintery backdrop. These surreal yet real-life scenes chime with the phenomenon of so-called “fake news,” which blurs the line between reality and fiction, prompting a postmodern investigation of truth.

From modern takes on ancient Chinese paintings to bold works that incorporate live vegetation on canvasses, Cheng has demonstrated a wide range of artistic skills and masterful executions of concepts in the early stages of his artistic career. Galerie Ora-Ora’s exhibition may not boast a large body of the artist’s works, but the show was packed with engaging creations that charted the artist’s promising professional trajectory.

HALLEY CHENG, Inflatable Horror No. 1, 2017, acrylic on linen, 30 × 40 cm. Courtesy the artist and Galerie Ora-Ora, Hong Kong.

Karen Cheung is ArtAsiaPacific’s Hong Kong desk editor.

Halley Cheng’s “Twist/Turn” is on view at Galerie Ora-Ora, Hong Kong, until September 16, 2017.

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