Hong Kong art show on beauty pageants, In Search of Miss Ruthless, explores themes surrounding the contests

Curators have brought together works from 23 international artists in the style of a pageant, with the public asked to vote for the “most ruthless” pieces

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 26 July, 2017, 5:03pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 26 July, 2017, 6:12pm

The two young curators of the “In Search of Miss Ruthless” exhibition have struck gold with the theme of beauty pageants. The dynamic exhibition, at Hong Kong’s Para Site gallery, explores the theme through gender, race, role playing and power structures.

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Not only does the exhibition explore pageants, but Hera Chan and David Xu Borgonjon have also cleverly brought together works from the 23 international artists in the style of a pageant. Visitors can vote for the entry that they think is the most ruthless; a reference both to the cutthroat rivalry seen in pageants and the democratic selection process offered by the Miss Hong Kong contests since 2012 (though organiser TVB is currently reviewing the judging process).

The “One Person One Vote” selection method has produced at least one Miss Hong Kong who defies some stereotypes of a beauty queen. Louisa Mak Ming-sze, an outspoken Cambridge graduate crowned in 2015, collaborated with New York-based artist Wong Kit-yi on a series of text-based works for the exhibition.

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The fact that some participants in these contests have progressive views on beauty and femininity doesn’t rid beauty pageants of their image of being superficial contests. Overseas ethnic pageants, such as all the Chinatown beauty contests out there, are also criticised for reinforcing orientalism in the West.

This idea prompted Chinese-American comedian and writer Kristina Wong to create a fictional beauty queen called Fannie Wong in the early 2000s. Performing as the cigar-chomping, boisterous Fannie (or fat girl in Chinese), Wong stomped on clichéd ideas about Chinese women with unladylike glee. Video clips from performances and the costume that she wore as Fannie are among the 27 works on display here.

Some of the artists in the show merely use the pageant theme as a point of departure for a more general reflection on gender. Jes Fan’s Disposed to Add (2017) is part performance, part installation. It broadens the dialogue by exploring transgender identity using objects such as gym weights made with pink silicone, and dumbbells made of soap and liquid testosterone.

Dachal Choi’s Days You Need Love, Fortune, and Money (2017) is a series of seven photographic works resembling pages from a Chinese calendar. Each shows the perfect man or woman you can hire as a companion to show off in public on auspicious days.

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Amna Asghar’s series of paintings draw on the perceptions of female beauty among overseas Pakistanis, and they are accompanied by a story, read out in Urdu, Cantonese and English, about women’s perception of how other women are treated in other cultures.

Most pieces are presented with soundtracks that are played through a portable audio device. Some are music tracks, others are multilingual voice recordings that provide the context for the artwork. There is a lack of consistency in the audio quality, and some of the English recordings are hard to follow.

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There are also pieces that have veered so far from the theme that they look out of place and could have been sacrificed to give room to the rest of the works.

A lot of work has gone into the exhibition, but visitors also have to work hard to be fully immersed in each work due to the sheer amount of audio material and text (some of it unnecessarily obscure) that accompany each piece.

Still, it is a delightful and gutsy effort by this year’s winners of Para Site’s Emerging Curators open call programme.

In Search of Miss Ruthless, Para Site, 22/F, Wing Wah Industrial Building, 677 King’s Road, Quarry Bay, Wed-Sun, 12pm-7pm. Until Sept 10, 2017.