Artists in Hong Kong-inspired show seek beauty in dystopian cityscapes

Brilliant City, the David Zwirner gallery’s first exhibition in Asia to feature Asian artists, shows the variety of ways artists react to their home cities or places they know

PUBLISHED : Friday, 13 July, 2018, 3:17pm
UPDATED : Friday, 13 July, 2018, 3:44pm

Outside the David Zwirner gallery in Queen’s Road Central looms Hong Kong’s dense and unyielding concrete jungle. Crowded, noisy, laced with hostility and, often, unpleasant smells, it is a mystery how many people fall under its spell.

The seductiveness of this “archetypal dystopian metropolis” is what inspired curator Leo Xu Yu to put together the gallery’s first exhibition in Asia to feature Asian artists. While there isn’t any artwork from Hong Kong, the selection shows how different artists look at their own version of Gotham and find beauty.

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Buildings and objects that are familiar may elicit a strong sense of attachment when change beckons, romanticised and adopted as symbols of values and social systems seen under threat.

Li Qing, based in Hangzhou and Shanghai, collects window frames from demolished buildings and attaches them to her paintings of city scenes. This “Neighbor’s Window” series places viewers inside an older building about to be squeezed out by the new, and makes them a witness to the city’s rapid gentrification. But even the view “outside” the window – the gleaming Jing’an Temple against the glass facade of Shanghai skyscrapers, for example – is one of impermanence. After all, cities’ fortunes ebb and flow with history.

Xu’s choice of the exhibition title, “Brilliant City”, taps straight into Hong Kong’s own sense that its glory days are over. The Chinese name is taken from the lyrics of the 1987 Canto-pop song Starry Night, in which a young Anthony Wong Yiu-ming sang about the lure of Hong Kong’s nightlife while lamenting “this bright city may begin to dim from now”. But nostalgia is certainly not the prerogative of cities that are insecure. Even that most forward-looking of cities – Shanghai – indulges in such sentimentality.

Forever Shanghai (2018) is a tribute to the longevity of China’s oldest bicycle manufacturer and the country’s love of cycling – recently rediscovered through bike-sharing apps. Michael Lin, who spent the past 10 years studying the changes in Shanghai, has covered a wall in the gallery with the Shanghai company’s logo, designed in an old-school typeface, and placed a classic Forever roadster in front of it.

The glamour of old colonial buildings never fades away, not even in the cynical light of post-colonial societies. In Next Year/L’Année Prochaine (2016), the Berlin-based Singaporean artist Ming Wong puts himself in a remake of Alain Resnais’s 1961 film, Last Year at Marienbad.

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In it, he plays both the male and female leads and moves the setting from France to Shanghai’s old French Concession district. With the buildings echoing the architecture seen in the original film, the video seems to proffer a sense of déjà vu that crosses both culture and gender.

Beijing-based Chen Wei also builds his relationship with the city through theatre. He creates miniature replicas of nameless street corners in his studio and then photographs them under dramatic lighting. Though always devoid of people, these scenes speak of the familiar, lonely anonymity of city dwellers.

None of these Asian artists are officially represented by David Zwirner but they worked with Xu when he ran his own gallery in Shanghai before he moved to Hong Kong this year. Also on show are works by three Western artists represented by the gallery: Francis Alÿs, Stan Douglas and the late Gordon Matta-Clark. The city has provoked a very physical response in Alÿs and Matta-Clark.

In 1991, the former pulled a magnetic toy dog through the streets of Mexico City, collecting abandoned pieces of other people’s lives and writing himself into local history by making people talk about such odd behaviour. A number of magnetic dogs that he made after the event are shown in the gallery.

Also included are photographs and a video of Matta-Clark’s so-called “anarchitecture”. Conical Intersect (1975) is a film documentation of how the artist made huge, gaping holes through two adjacent seventeenth-century houses that were about to be knocked down to make way for the controversial Centre Georges Pompidou. He literally opened up the street, introducing new conduits for light and air within the city, albeit temporarily.

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It may seem odd that a show inspired by Hong Kong doesn’t include any Hong Kong artist. Xu explains that he has only included artists he has personally worked with before and needs more time to familiarise himself with the local art scene.

Brilliant City, David Zwirner, 5-6/F H Queen’s, 80 Queen’s Road Central, Tue-Sat 11am-7pm. Until August 4.