Up Close: Bani Abidi, Yao Qingmei, Lee Kai Chung
By The Editors
If we weren’t certain that the sun will rise and set again tomorrow, we would probably spend our days in radically different ways. Likewise, if we didn’t believe that investments will pay off, economic growth would grind to a halt, just as a lack of collective conviction in political systems spell instability. For her photo installation The Reassuring Hand Gestures of Big Men, Small Men, All Men (2021), Bani Abidi scoured news reports from across historical eras and geographies, and zoomed in on the body language that political leaders use in drumming up camaraderie and confidence to preserve the status quo. Her close-up images, tightly framing the hands of these authority figures, are arranged in a loose, horizontal line by category.
Starting from the left of the installation at Abidi’s 2021 solo exhibition “The Man Who Talked Until He Disappeared,” presented by the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, one sees a cluster of clenched fists thrust in the air, and then a series of open palms, held upright. The next section, of single digits pointing skyward, abuts on the right with clippings of salutes, and fingers spread in V-shapes. By typologically grouping the photos, Abidi underscores how, from democrat Barack Obama to right-winger Benjamin Netanyahu (both frequently seen with balled-up hands), communist revolutionary Mao Zedong to nationalist Mobutu Sese Seko (both wavers), these men employ the same non-verbal rhetoric to convey their ideologies, prompting questions of just how different they are. In their aggregation and hyper-visibility, the gestures become not signifiers of specific meaning but hollow symbols with values to be arbitrated. Power lies in symbolic exchanges between governors and their supporters; a salute for a salute back. In The Reassuring Hand Gestures of Big Men, Small Men, All Men, the irony stems from the fact that there is no visible reciprocal.
In her latest work, Yao Qingmei parallels the underground fortress in Franz Kafka’s short story The Burrow (1931), built by a grotesque, paranoid creature desperate to protect itself against imagined enemies, with a middle-class leisure haven and residence in China. In the beginning of Yao’s video The Burrow (2021), a female voice muses: “The most beautiful thing about my burrow is the stillness. Of course, that is deceptive. At any moment it may be shattered and then all will be over.” The work details the daily routine of a security guard employed at the property. Images captured by the more than 400 surveillance cameras installed there are juxtaposed with footage of her dull tasks, such as checking the CCTV monitors in the underground central control room. A close-up shot shows the chamber’s massive central processing unit, a mesmerizing cage-like hive that eerily beeps against the pleasurable, operatic tune of Carmen (1875) in the background. In voiceover, the guard recites a poem, expressing how her experience of the external world is only permitted through the screens: “Outside the northeast corner of Building No. 7/There’s a hawthorn tree/I watched the growing of the fruits/Green, red, and gone.”
The video then transitions to brightly colored scenes overground, of male staff mechanically turning left and right according to commands. Postcard-like wide-angle shots follow, in which tourists pose in front of cameras while staff maintain the landscape in the background. Though in the same frame, the different parties appear to be in parallel worlds, isolated by the structure of the community, each preserving their own “burrows.” Through these uncanny depictions, Yao reveals how members of society willingly segregate and reshape themselves to fit the system, reiterating the sentiments in the security guard’s poem: “The willow blocks the camera/It must be cut away.”
Lee Kai Chung
Commissioned for “Liquid Ground,” an exhibition curated by Alvin Li and Junyuan Feng, Lee Kai Chung’s installation Sea-sand Home (2021) lays bare the tensions between people, nation-states, and the environment. At its core are research materials from Lee’s investigation into the Guangxi origins of the sand that has been used to extend the coast of Hong Kong’s Lantau Island as part of the multi- billion-dollar “Lantau Tomorrow Vision” infrastructure project. The integration of mainland Chinese soil into the ground of Hong Kong draws a vivid metaphorical image of the complicated geopolitics between the two places, evoking the inevitable total reclamation of the Special Administrative Region by the mainland.
For the work, isolated heaps of sand are placed on the ground, foregrounding the sediment’s dislocation, be it from Guangxi to Hong Kong or from a coastal beach to an exhibition space, as evidence of how we use, claim, and discard the resources that surround us. Reclamation used to refer to recovering damaged land for ecological cultivation, but it has now mostly become an invasive enterprise that chokes bodies of water to feed our gluttonous appetite for expansion and power. The three salt-and-metal towers that complete the installation give the work its name. They refer to buildings made with unfiltered sea-sand whose salt component causes corrosion, ultimately destroying the structure from within.
With salt eating away at their walls, the towers contrast the utopic economic haven painted in the “Lantau Tomorrow Vision.” Sea-sand Home looks at ownership between people and places as a process of claiming and reclaiming. We can use nature as a ground to play out our struggles for power, but it will gradually reclaim itself. If we suffocate our seas, it is only a matter of time until it drowns us.
NICOLE M. NEPOMUCENO