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Seeing a Turkish artist’s video installation of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah inspired Calvin Hui (above), co-founder and chairman of Hong Kong- and London- based art gallery 3812 Gallery.

‘I felt so vulnerable. I almost cried’: Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah lip-synced on video by a woman in Turkey inspired Hong Kong art gallery founder

  • Turkish artist Ferhat Özgür’s video shows a woman in a headscarf lip-syncing to the Leonard Cohen song Hallelujah with Ankara construction sites as a backdrop
  • Calvin Hui of 3812 Gallery saw it in an abandoned building in Berlin, and was immediately moved by the video, returning the next day to watch it again

Turkish artist Ferhat Özgür’s 2008 video installation I Can Sing, a wry commentary on the erasure of cultural identity in the face of Western homogenisation, depicts a woman in a headscarf lip-syncing to Jeff Buckley’s cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” against the sprawling backdrop of contemporary Ankara.

Calvin Hui, co-founder and chairman of the Hong Kong- and London-based 3812 Gallery, which specialises in modern and contemporary Chinese art, tells Richard Lord how it changed his life.

I first saw it at the 6th Berlin Biennale, in 2010. I was there purely as a visitor. I collected art for a long time before I started the gallery.

It’s a work that has had a strong impact on me till now. It powerfully depicts a woman wearing traditional Islamic clothing standing among the debris of an urban housing development set against the unfinished landscape of Ankara.

Turkish artist Ferhat Özgur’s video installation I Can Sing. Photo: Ferhat Ozgur

It was shown on the top floor of an abandoned industrial building on the Oranienplatz that had been filled with a lot of installations and video works. When I arrived at the top floor, it was like walking into an unfinished construction site.

Then you hear this sensational voice singing Hallelujah. You see this video of a woman lip-syncing and it was super powerful. Watching it, I felt so vulnerable. I almost cried in front of the screen. It was on a loop, and I kept watching. I even came back on another day to watch it again.

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There were many layers of emotion when I saw this work. When you watch the screen, it expresses confrontation, and you feel the grief, sadness and pain that come from conflict or differences of culture, and also modernisation, urbanisation and how people from different back­grounds live together. But the song expresses joy, gratitude.

I also see light, hope and a positive message in this video. It’s about how we can make this world better, how we can embrace inclusivity, how we can show respect. It drew me to question issues of humanity and reflect upon my own cultural identity as a Hong Kong Chinese person: who we are, what our history is and how we move on.

In 2011, I opened the gallery. The first exhibition I curated was called “Time and Memory”. The I Can Sing video resonated with that, so I searched for the artist and emailed him. I said I wanted to dedicate a big room and just project the video. He was very happy; he’d never exhibited in Hong Kong before. I remember some guests watched the video and cried, which was very powerful.

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In the 12 years since I saw I Can Sing for the first time, we have seemed to be living in a world as fragmented as the images I first saw, yet we continue to strive for a better world. Through this video, I could see that we all share the same roots and the same culture.

My reflection of that moment over a decade ago continues to influence and inspire my desire to foster a cross-cultural path, be it in my personal life or that of my art businesses.