Fans of the satirical The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy sci-fi series by Douglas Adams will instantly recognise the title of a Hong Kong art exhibition in Finland. “So Long, Thanks Again For The Fish” invokes the parting shot from all the dolphins as they abandon earth and species of lesser intelligence, such as humans, before the planet’s annihilation by aliens. The Cantonese name of the show is less final, less of an echo of the current exodus from Hong Kong. Taken from a Stephen Chow Sing-chi comedy, it means: “You want to say goodbye? Not so fast!” The comic tone is a contrast to the heaviness that has enshrouded Hong Kong over the past two years. But behind the elements of playfulness in the exhibition are a solemn ritual of mourning and a fervent prayer for rebirth. The Douglas Adams reference is an apt one, for the global pandemic drives home the fact that nature can outsmart and overcome the human race. It also fits the overall theme of the Helsinki Biennial – of which the exhibition is part – “The Same Sea”; the biennial proposes that humankind faces the same connected fate because of climate change and other overwhelming challenges. We may all be in “the same sea” but Hong Kong and Finland seem like polar opposites, and cultural exchanges between the two are rare. However, Koon Yeewan, chairwoman of the Fine Arts Department at the University of Hong Kong, met the team behind the Helsinki International Artist Programme (HIAP) when she was co-curating the Gwangju Biennial in 2018. The team from the Finnish non-profit art institution were impressed by the works of Hong Kong artists that Koon had selected for that biennial, such as Luke Ching Chin-wai’s Region of Failed Flags , made with rejected flag designs for the newly set-up Hong Kong Special Administrative Region in 1997. Guilty plea to theft is justice done, says Hong Kong art dealer So, with sponsorship from the Hong Kong government’s Art Promotion Office, five Hong Kong artists are now showing their works in a large hall on Suomenlinna, an island in Helsinki that is a Unesco heritage site because of its 18th century fortress architecture. The five artists selected are Ching, Christopher K. Ho, Lam Tung-pang, Cédric Maridet and Angela Su. The premise of “So Long, Thanks Again For The Fish” is the idea of living with imperfections, Koon says. This is a survival mechanism when the sheer amount of problems in the world cause great anxiety. We need to step back and accept that it is fine to be in this position, she says, while drawing upon the idea of collaborative survival. “I chose artists who I knew had very different practices and doing really interesting projects. I have a Frenchman [Maridet], someone America-based [Ho], and we are presenting Hong Kong that is not just a typical unit of Hong Kong people and prompting questions of what a ‘Hong Kong artist’ actually mean?” Koon says. Despite the differences, these works are united by how strongly they capture the zeitgeist, not just of Hong Kong but the world, where different values are in head-on collision, long-standing rules are challenged or tossed aside, and the level of anxiety is heightened by the pandemic. There is a lot of dismantling, returning to the building blocks, and creating new forms and languages out of the rubble. For example, Maridet, a sound artist, recorded slogans from protests around the world and analysed them note by note, displaying each wavelength and frequency on a colour-coded grid. But the clinical splicing and anatomical study of these dissected chants have no meaning or power. He then brings all the notes back together to create a new score which, as Maridet says in an online panel discussion, may amount to a new public voice emerging, or at least, the yearning for one. Ho’s creation is similarly molecular. The Hong Kong-born, US-based artist (recently named as executive director of the Asia Art Archive) developed his work when he was stuck in a small cottage in the US state of Colorado for 10 months because of a sudden coronavirus lockdown. Thrown suddenly into isolation alone and having just marker pens and Post-it notes on hand, he started drawing childlike, basic geometric shapes that evolved, Post-it by Post-it note, into rudimentary creatures. This became the basis of his Finland project, an alternative and primitive evolutionary system that is his attempt at world building. “I wondered what I would do if we could start over and build society from scratch,” he says. He decided that to approach such a daunting project, the only way was for him to fill a Post-it note one day at a time. “People are so lost, so let’s just do one thing every day,” he says. In a way, the installations inside Levyhalli, the massive former aeroplane workshop used for the exhibition, suggest a collective bout of obsessive-compulsive behaviour. A number of neat grids dominate the space, perhaps indicative of a desperate need to find order amid our current chaos. There is an open prison here. People in the same supermarket we go to, the people who fix things around us, they are prisoners! ... Finland really is a place that comes up with alternative social models and puts them into practice Luke Ching, Hong Kong artist Ho’s cut-outs of geometric shapes are arranged in a square on the floor, complementing the equally orderly rows and columns of Maridet’s inventory of sounds as well as Ching’s giant display of hundreds of flags hanging in neat rows near the high ceiling. This, too, has to do with the making of a new world. Flag Day (2021) is an assembly of failed flag designs from 39 places around the world, including the Hong Kong ones he used in Gwangju. It opens up a whole firmament of possibilities and alternative scenarios. Flags are, after all, symbols that are meant to express the essence of a place, and one can ponder what different fate a different flag might have brought. Another work by Ching is very relevant to Hong Kong’s current debate over the rights and wrongs of new laws. He extended his Cross Border Conviction (2018-) to consider crimes in Finland that are legal in Hong Kong and vice versa. Videos of Ching “committing” crimes in the jurisdiction where they are not banned – for example, buying take-home alcohol after 9pm, which is perfectly fine in Hong Kong – make the rules appear absurd and in defiance of national stereotypes. After all, who would have thought there are stricter rules on drinking in Finland than Hong Kong? Ching says the work has acquired additional meaning on the picturesque island where the exhibition is held. “There is an open prison here. People in the same supermarket we go to, the people who fix things around us, they are prisoners! And they haven’t just committed relatively mild crimes. I was told there are murderers here too. Finland really is a place that comes up with alternative social models and puts them into practice,” he says. Earlier this year, Ching had a solo exhibition at the Para Site art space in Quarry Bay, Hong Kong, called “ Glitch in the Matrix ”, which explored the opportunities arising from glitches that allow escape from an overarching authority and the chance to create something original. In Finland, Su’s series homes in on the same theme. She explains that glitches represent imperfections that we all have to live with, as well as breaks in logic that can allow for major shifts in thinking. An installation she co-produced with the poet Jan Chong called Itchy Twitchy Bitchy Glitch (2021) includes the largest hair embroidery that Su has ever made – a huge panel showing images of dissected insects. These are, literally, bugs, she says. While computer bugs are the bane of modern life, her creations are beautiful to look at. Next to the embroideries is a “code poem” written by Chong, a computer program that also reads like a poem, with built-in glitches that result in random words emerging on digital displays, like spirits. In another work by Su, a video called Lacrima , ghosts roam and psychics can talk to the dead on a fictional island just off Helsinki. Aesthetically, the black and white film echoes the same Victorian gothic style of her previous works, and the narrative muddles reality with fiction, enhanced by scenes taken from well-known Surrealist films. As Koon writes in her curatorial statement, we are living in a “post-truth” world where metaphors and fictions can be as honest as other texts. Stories, even fairy tales, are no longer an escape but brutal mirrors of the world. (A slim fairy tale book is published with the exhibition, charting the allegorical journey of self-discovery by the five artists). Lam is the only artist of the five who did not go to Finland because of his fear of flying. But his Apart-House uses a very local Finnish material: a second-hand wooden summer house. With the help of HIAP, he bought a traditional wooden hut that a Finnish family wanted to sell after using it for decades. Through Zoom, he asked the local team to split the small unit into two and installed it with paintings he sent from Hong Kong covering the outside of the house fragments. The paintings are deliberately childlike and reminiscent of fairy tale illustrations. The name of the work alludes to houses being torn asunder metaphorically, as political divisions split families apart and drive some to leave their hometowns for good. Fairy tales don’t always end happily, Lam says. The children in his paintings crouch in the little house looking fearful as the nightmare they have been warned of becomes reality. “These fears, written by grown-ups, stay with you as you grow up,” he says. So it is a deeply melancholic exhibition. Yet it also points to the possibility of a reboot, and is the latest reminder that the rest of the world is increasingly waking up to the quality of works by Hong Kong artists. Works by 15 other artists (from veterans such a Eddie Lui Fung-ngar and Winnie Mak Chui-ying to younger practitioners Bouie Choi Yuk-kuen and Lau Hiu-tung) have just been shipped to Fukuoka, Japan, for next month’s 29th Asian International Art Exhibition. Hong Kong artists, for now, continue to share their playful, humorous and most of all honest visions far and wide.