VERTICAL SUBMARINE, Antichamber: The Fake Palindrome, 2012. Mixed-media installation. Courtesy Hong Kong Arts Centre, Hong Kong.

Of Human Scale and Beyond: Experience and Transcendence

Pao Galleries, Hong Kong Arts Centre
Hong Kong Singapore Japan China India Indonesia
Also available in:  Chinese  Arabic

Hong Kong Arts Centre (HKAC) executive director Connie Lam and guest curator Eugene Tan from Singapore selected nine Asian artists to explore the theme “Of Human Scale and Beyond.” Expectedly, there was a strong showing of artists from Hong Kong (Leung Mee-ping and Roy Ng) and Singapore (Vertical Submarine and Ho Tzu Nyen), with others from Japan, China, India and Indonesia.

The curatorial premise—expressing the transcendental on a relatively small, human scale—was most precisely captured by the first artwork seen on entering Pao Galleries on the fifth floor of HKAC. Antichamber: The Fake Palindrome (2012), by the artist collective Vertical Submarine (Fiona Koh, Justin Loke and Joshua Yang), incorporated a desk with several neatly arranged ink brushes, a lamp and a page of typed writing. This text, however, was reversed, as was the nearby wall text (an excerpt from a Jorge Luis Borges novel), which was only legible by peering into what seemed to be a mirror hung on the opposite wall. It took a moment for one to realize that this “mirror” was actually a framed egress to another room that was a mirror-image of the first. Antichamber is an abridged version of Vertical Submarine’s The Garden of Forking Paths (2010), which consists of a longer series of interconnecting rooms.

After stepping through Antichamber’s “mirror” and turning the corner into a second room, viewers were met with Chinese artist Liu Jianhua’s Discard (2002–12), which had also been economized for the compact space of HKAC. Discard, a pile of smashed vases and ceramic molds of common modern objects evenly distributed over a rectangular area measuring five by ten meters, has, in its largest iteration, covered a total area of 450 square meters. In the same room as Discard was Japanese artist Takahiro Iwasaki’s Out of Disorder (White Mountains) (2011–12), a mountainscape created from piles of white cloth, dotted with communication towers delicately made with stiff thread. These two works both expressed something of the fragility, if not the surreality, of human civilization.

Indonesian artist Aditya Novali’s punning installation, THE WALL – Asian (Un)real Estate Project (2012), which was housed in a darkened backroom, resonated with Ho Tzu Nyen’s Cloud of Unknowing (2011), a film screened on the lower level of the Pao Galleries. Both dealt with the isolating, spirit-crushing environment of low-income housing projects. By rotating the three-sided panels in Novali’s miniature, illuminated, single-facade apartment complex, each featuring a window, prison door or plain brick wall, visitors could literally transform the building into a prison. Meanwhile, Cloud of Unknowing depicts the tenants of a single building, living fantastical but completely separate inner lives. Over the course of the film, they are reconciled to a world outside themselves as each of their apartments is infiltrated by a cloud spirit—a bellowing white-haired man emanating clouds of smoke.

In another darkened room on HKAC’s lower level, veteran Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama’s Ladder to Heaven (2012) appeared to climb and recede infinitely above and below. Two circular mirrors sandwiching a ladder made of color-changing neon fibers and wreathed with vine-like filaments of metal wire created this effect. An evocative poem accompanying the work began: “I believe nothing is more beautiful than the sky / Tenderly the stairs lure my heart / Each time that happens, my whole life / Through the shining white clouds of cumulus / Higher and higher goes upward / Pushing through the white and whiter clouds / What I found at the risk of my life / Was everlasting love that shines forever . . .”.

In his curatorial statement, Tan drew on Immanuel Kant’s idea of the sublime to express the true function of art, which is to evoke the “sensation of limitlessness.” Kusama’s Ladder, Vertical Submarine’s Antichamber and Ho Tzu Nyen’s Cloud of Unknowing were three works that dealt with the notion of the sublime and satisfied the theme of the exhibition. The other works did not always cohere with this concept, but they did present valuable exposés on the social issues that come with high-density urban environments.