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A new 14-minute film, projected onto the Hong Kong M+ museum’s giant screen, is designed to remind people we’re “in it together”. Photo: courtesy of Ellen Pau/M+

Marking Art Basel’s return to Hong Kong, M+ Museum to project Buddhist meditation video in sign language on its huge public art wall every day for a month

  • The video by filmmaker Ellen Pau will show a futuristic being recite the Buddhist ‘Heart Sutra’ in sign language for two hours, visible from 7pm-9pm from May 20
  • Pau, who hopes the film will bring healing to those who see it and encourage them to ‘keep calm and carry on’, reveals how a friend’s passing inspired the work
Art Basel

To mark the return of the Art Basel fair in Hong Kong, the giant external wall of M+ museum, in the West Kowloon Cultural District, will come to life from May 20 with a new video by filmmaker Ellen Pau.

The Shape of Light (2022) is a 14-minute Buddhist meditation for the 21st century. On the 66 metre (217 foot)-high screen, a futuristic being will recite the Buddhist “Heart Sutra” in sign language. It will be visible from 7pm-9pm every day for a month, and then on weekends until the third week of July.

While the position and size of the LED wall on the side of the museum makes this a piece of public art that harks back to the large, multimedia projections that Pau used to make for Hong Kong-based theatre group Zuni Icosahedron, the seed of The Shape of Light came from a private act of grieving.

In 2019, one of Pau’s closest friends and former Zuni collaborator Chan Pik-yu died from cancer. In her final days, Chan repeated Buddhist sutras to herself to get through the pain.

Filmmaker Ellen Pau. Photo: courtesy of Ellen Pau/Ng Tze Kwan

“I am not a Buddhist,” Pau says. “But for the closing of my solo exhibition at [contemporary arts centre] Para Site in 2019, I felt a desire to continue my connection with my friend and I arranged for a performance of the Heart Sutra expressed through signing. The new work is a continuation of that connection.”

The work will hopefully bring healing, she adds. “I am not suggesting we should escape from reality. But we all need to ‘keep calm and carry on’, as the old wartime slogan suggests.”

A still from The Shape of Light. Photo: courtesy of Ellen Pau/M+

The sci-fi appearance of the signer in the film comes from Pau’s fascination with the possibility that a library of avatars of the dead could one day allow us to speak to those who have passed, and to explore a different level of the spiritual world through cyberspace.

“This work may seem quite different from what I did previously but M+ will be screening online seven of my works from 1988 to 2015, with an audio guide recorded by myself that will hopefully make it clear that everything in my practice is closely connected,” she says.

Ulanda Blair, curator of moving image at M+, says the work is co-commissioned by the museum and Art Basel, and that both thought Pau was the right artist for this moment.
The film will be visible between 7pm-9pm every day for a month, and then on weekends until the third week of July. Photo: courtesy of Ellen Pau/M+

“We felt she has [the] requisite skills and experience to rise to the challenge to the unique exhibition space the facade represents,” Blair says. “She is an incredibly empathetic, creative artist and understands the open context of the facade.”

The facade is porous, so the light inside the building (as well as the visual noise from the dense urban jungle around it) mingles with what’s shown on the screen. Pau embraces the “interference”, Blair says, and transforms the energy and emotional currents of Hong Kong into a dance of light.

“She knows the city has been hurting, sees how art can heal and repair, and [can] remind each other of their interconnectedness to the city. She reminds us that we are in it together,” she adds.

A still from The Shape of Light. Photo: courtesy of Ellen Pau
On May 27, members of the public can join the artist at M+ for a healing, durational performance (or endurance art) by Pau that also includes a soothing sound bath by artist Shane Aspegren, amid a calming ambience created by lighting designer Amy Chan.

Register for free on the M+ website to see this performance live in The Forum at M+. It will also be live-streamed at the museum’s cinema, Grand Stair, and online via the M+ YouTube channel.