Depth in Venice
Hong Kong is punching above its weight at the biennale as Asian artists strive to be philosophical, writes Kevin Kwong
Revolving slowly and quietly inside a refrigerated cubicle no bigger than a standard Hong Kong kitchen at minus 12 degrees Celsius, local artist Amy Cheung Wan-man's Venice Biennale debut, Devil's Advocate, is a literally cool and beautiful piece.
At one end of the room are six ice sculptures in the shapes of sleeping figures, each attached to the axle of a Ferris wheel that turns a fraction of a centimetre each second. There's a low hum in the background and the lights are dim. Like the figures, time seems to have been frozen. The ambience of the confined space is clinical but beautiful, being inside it alluring yet dangerous. After a minute you start to feel the cold penetrating your clothes and skin.
What if the door jams and you're stuck in the sub-zero conditions? Perhaps there could be a mechanical failure and the ice sculptures begin to melt? These are questions Cheung wants visitors to think about: the fragility of the human body. Inspired by a burial of a child she witnessed in Tibet, and by her own motherhood, the 34-year-old says she's in awe of the frailty of human life.
'Just as a child needs a lot of attention, love and care, my work needs this huge refrigerating mechanism to back it up,' Cheung says. 'It's a mammoth effort to support something so small and delicate.'
Devil's Advocate is one of three works currently on show in an exhibition entitled Star Fairy - part of the 52nd Venice Biennale, which runs until November 21. The show, funded by the Hong Kong Arts Development Council, also includes a reference-heavy installation by Hiram To and a parrot-inhabited island made of oyster shells created by Laurent Gutierrez and Valerie Portefaix, who go by the name of Map Office.
Curated by Norman Ford, a lecturer at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University and an arts reviewer for the South China Morning Post, the exhibition sets out to examine how this city represents itself to the world. His approach is a playful and clever one, and Star Fairy is free of Hong Kong cliches.
With the exception of Map Office's Concrete Jungle/Parrot's Tale - which makes direct reference to Hong Kong's political ties with the mainland (in part, it marks the 10th anniversary of Hong Kong's 'retrocession') - neither Cheung's work nor To's I Love You More Than My Own Death is Hong Kong-specific.
Two years ago, the aesthetically interesting but politically muted Hong Kong show was a damp squib compared with the commentary-heavy work coming out of post-tsunami Asia. But this year the quality of work from other Asia-Pacific countries is more uneven.
Macau made its Venice Biennale debut this year with Place, a two-piece exhibition curated by the Macau Museum of Art that deals with 'cultural coexistence and preservation as well as the relationship between humanity's pursuit of dreams and reality'. It features two installations by Konstantin Bessmertny, Lui Chak-keong and Lui Chak-hong.
The Fine Arts Museum of Taiwan's Atopia includes photography by Lee Kuo-min, an installation by Tang Huang- chen, a playful presentation of the robotic by Huang Shih-chieh, comics by VIVA and a Tsai Ming-liang short film. The show is rich in content, addressing the issue of globalisation, but tame by Taiwanese standards. None of the works delivers a particularly hard-hitting message.
The work in the Thai Pavilion tackles the same issue in the show Globalisation ... Please Slow Down, which features Amrit Chusuwan and Nipan Oranniwesna. The site-specific exhibition urges viewers to rethink the process of adopting a foreign culture, their philosophy and whether the flow of culture is east to west or vice versa. The artists take a spiritual and philosophical approach to their subject matter, using a whitewashed room (Oranniwesna's City of Ghosts) and sand (Chusuwan's Being Sand) as their media.
The Singapore Pavilion houses works by Tang Da Wuk, Vincent Leow, Jason Lim and Zulkifle Mahmod. Under the theme of 'figments, fictions and fantasies', the works (mostly installations) explore myth, imaginary constructs, illusions and simulated or altered reality. Lim's shattered ceramic chandelier and Mahmod's 'sonic dome' stand out in a show that perhaps says more about the lavish funding of the arts in Singapore than anything else.
International critics have been drawn more to the arresting show Homo Species by young South Korean artist Lee Hyung-koo than Is There a Future for Our Past? - The Dark Face of the Light, a sober show about history in the Japanese Pavilion. The latter showcases 1,400 frottages (prints made by rubbing a piece of paper on a rough surface) from Hiroshima by Masao Okabe. Lee merges science with popular cartoons such as Tom and Jerry and Bugs Bunny to produce Felis Catus Animatus, Mus Animatus and Lepus Animatus.
The mainland has almost a ubiquitous presence at this year's biennale, with the main focus on its Everyday Miracles show, curated by Hou Hanru. The exhibition includes works by Shen Yuan, Yin Xiuzhen, Kan Xuan and Cao Fei, with three big installations and video works.
Yet their artistic take on everyday life fails to make as much impact as that of compatriot Yang Fudong, whose beautiful black and white epic Seven Intellectuals in Bamboo Forest is a sensation. Part of the Arsenale exhibition put together by the director of this year's biennale, Robert Storr, the four- hour long piece is a poetic and surreal visual narrative showing China in transition.
According to Gu Zhenqing, a leading mainland curator, it's significant that Yang's piece, which is divided into five parts, is being shown in five screening cubicles that form the backbone of the runway-shaped venue.
'It's unprecedented for such prominence to be given to a Chinese work,' he says.