• Issue
  • Jun 19, 2023

Up Close: Vaevae Chan

Installation view of VAEVAE CHAN’s "She Told Me to Head to the Sea" at Juen Juen Gung, Hong Kong, 2023. Courtesy Juen Juen Gung.

In the three years after her father’s sudden death and her home city’s historic sociopolitical unrest, Vaevae Chan built a cave to hide herself away. Now the artist has invited others to visit her refuge. To locate it, I journeyed to the 17th floor of an industrial building in Hong Kong’s San Po Kong neighborhood where I was faced with four identical gray doors. Entering through one, I was enveloped in darkness, my eyes adjusting as my fingers traced rough stones lining the entrance. The artificial rocks were light and hollow but I allowed myself to collapse into the illusion of their density and concreteness. On top of the crevices were perched black-painted figurines and vessels—pitches, vases, ashtrays—a nod to the artist’s training in clay.

The sound of footsteps echoed from a source unknown, followed by faint scratching, liquid dripping, and a marble rolling. Someone was here. Tension and eeriness filled the air. “Go to the sea,” a voice instructed. Further in, a glass display embedded into the ersatz stone contained ceramic objects resembling oceanic forms, all painted black except one: a jar of the topical ointment Tiger Balm.

An illuminated table’s blue light beckoned me closer. There, I found a bronze bell. When I rang it, a hidden door opened into a room with a projector. A video detailing the cave’s fictitious history started playing once I sat down: Chan, wearing a tiger bodysuit, was “consumed by darkness” and had secreted herself away in the rocks. She sought aid from ghosts and gods until, finally, a feline mascot dropped a jar of soothing ointment into her cave, providing instant relief. Chan then rolled out of hiding and into the sea, where “[s]he is now free.”

Chan’s “She Told Me to Head to the Sea” (2022) is an exercise in discovery, for herself and for viewers, engaging all of one’s senses. Beyond its humor and novelty—with nods to the grottos of the Tiger Balm gardens in Hong Kong and Singapore—the installation and video reinforce time and introspection as crucial to healing, especially in a hostile climate such as ours.