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Review: Journal of the Plague Year

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 21 May, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 21 May, 2013, 12:02pm

Journal of the Plague Year

Para Site

Racism and colonial superiority form the core themes of this exhibition about Hong Kong's bouts of sickness and epidemic over the past century.

Para Site's executive director Cosmin Costinas and independent curator Inti Guerrero have curated "Journal of the Plague Year. Fear, Ghosts, Rebels, Sars, Leslie and the Hong Kong Story".

Beginning chronologically, this overly-ambitious exhibition outlines Hong Kong's outbreaks of sickness and its responses. Larry Feign's cartoons of the first interactions between the British and Chinese after Britain's annexation of Hong Kong Island in 1841 are amusingly mirrored in his own contemporary cross-cultural comic Lily Wong.

The 1894 plague outbreak is depicted in a series of photographs of the densely populated Tai Ping Shan area of Sheung Wan being cleaned by sanitary workers. The solution to this unhealthy environment is Hong Kong's first forced land resumption.

Other reminders of the 2003 Sars outbreak include the "self-cleaning alcohol hand sprays" seen in office lobbies and plastic covered lift buttons.

Pak Sheung Chuen's haunting 3692, 11.05.2003 is a framed plastic sheet that previously covered a building's access entry code pad - the numbers: 3, 6, 9 and 2 are overused and embossed onto the plastic.

In contrast, Ai Weiwei's installation of milk powder cans in the shape of China is the artistic letdown of the show.

Ming Wong's video of a Charlie Chan-type detective trailing a woman in a labyrinth of Chinatown streets (left, a prop from the footage), explores the seeming impenetrability of Chinese culture to outsiders, while James Hong's compelling and odd Taipei 101 - A Travelogue of Symptoms sees the narrator become sick on screen as he discusses the sociology of white men visiting Taiwan after 9/11.

The exhibition sometimes lacks a personal touch. There are few anecdotal memories from 2003. The best exploration of the trauma of Sars is the video interview with journalist Fionnuala McHugh. Her stories are appropriately varied and include postulating over whether the site of her Kennedy Town flat, owned by Tung Wah Group of Hospitals, is where 1894 plague victims were buried by sanitary workers. This is one of many issues left untied and hanging for viewers to unravel.

John Batten

Until July 20

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