Hong Kong’s Empty Gallery, where groping an artichoke in the dark is part of the show

Stephen Cheng’s ‘black cube’ gallery asks visitors to a new multimedia exhibition to put on a virtual reality headset, hold out their hands and wait to receive a warm prickly vegetable

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 22 December, 2016, 6:33am
UPDATED : Thursday, 22 December, 2016, 6:33am

Remember Trust Falls? There has always been a hint of that once-popular team building game when you enter Stephen Cheng’s Empty Gallery and start groping your way around.

The “black cube” gallery – where the minimum amount of lighting is reserved for showing art rather than aiding navigation – has just upped the ante. Visitors to a new exhibition are asked to put on a virtual reality headset that blocks all awareness of their surroundings, to hold out their hands and wait for a warm artichoke.

“You can do anything you like with it,” a voice says. Those brave enough, or perhaps just pathologically gullible like this writer, will be relieved to find that the promised artichoke is not a euphemism but the real thing.

The artichoke experience is part of German artist Hans-Henning Korb’s multimedia installation called Kaya Cynara, and it gives a taste – literally, as you can eat the artichoke – of the wonderfully quirky programming that Cheng can now offer in the newly expanded space.

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Cheng, grandson of shipping tycoon Pao Yue-kong, has a day job with the family office and travels around the world looking for small and medium-sized businesses to invest in. He has just bought a vineyard in Sardinia, Italy.

Still, he finds the time to grow the now 18-month-old gallery and music venue in an industrial building in Tin Wan, Aberdeen. The gallery originally occupied the 19th floor, but Cheng bought the floor below when that became available and put in an internal staircase to create a roomy, 4,500 sq ft exhibition space that can accommodate multiple exhibitions.

“We can now offer a broader programme, stagger exhibitions, screen experimental films and feature more installations that need multiple rooms, like Henning’s,” says Cheng, who likes to commission projects that blur the boundaries between art forms and provide a multi-sensory experience.

For the next two months, visitors will first see Takashi Makino’s Cinema Concret on the 19th floor – a three-dimensional experimental film made from layering archived footage with original, abstract materials. Accompanied by a new score by Dutch musician Rutger Zuydervelt, it is a ghostly and disorientating experience.

Downstairs, the scenario completely changes. Korb’s installation resembles a moist, forest cave illuminated only by a video of cavorting snails. There is a mound of earth that leads up to a shaman who offers visitors artichoke tea out of an impossible vessel. Then comes the VR headset and the warm artichoke.

“The artichoke is natural and warm in your hands, but you are seeing abstract patterns through the headset. You are in two places at the same time. It is a very interesting experience,” Cheng says. The globetrotter, who has just launched a vinyl record label in Berlin, is more an art patron than gallery owner – though he did have a booth at Photofairs Shanghai this year to promote photographer Amit Desai – and he wants to present experimental content that is not found in commercial or government venues.

“The fact that we haven’t had proper museums in Hong Kong accounts for the lack of programming. Empty Gallery is a long-term commitment and a long-term experiment that I hope can help to fill that gap,” he says.

Kaya Cynara and Cinema Concret, Empty Gallery, 18-19/F, Grand Marine Centre, 3 Yue Fung Street, Tin Wan. Tue-Sat 11am-7pm