18 November, 2013

Yinka Shonibare: Dreaming Rich

Yinka Shonibare's first foray into the identity of Hong Kong.

Following the trend of so many famous artists doing their 'first solo in Asia', Yinka Shonibare opens Dreaming Rich tomorrow at Pearl Lam. The exhibition by the London-born Nigeria-raised artist includes works created specifically for – and about – Hong Kong.

Entering Pearl Lam, the exhibition is somewhat divided, into three parts. On the right, a slightly enclosed glass cube and on the left, the long room, divided in half by a long wall. Why divide the space like this? I wonder. 

Curator, David Chan, was trying to create an HK-like space and I suppose that an awkward division in a room, combined with the strange, long space is very Hong Kong. It also allowed for the hanging of a very long painting. 

Shonibare views his own works
An icon of Shonibare's work is the use of African textiles, those batik fabrics which seem to echo tribal art. As it turns out, this Indonesian process of dying was mimicked by the Dutch, with the aim of selling them back to Indonesia. But they weren't popular and so they sold them to West Africa. Now, they're so common that we call them African textiles.

In this, there's a notion of imposing culture onto a people – especially one that is likely poorer than you. But there's another link: Trade routes, something that Shonibare is interested in, along with history. We already know he relies on history for story-telling. Look at the amazing Victorian Dandy series.

The fabrics have become a motif in his work now, so in terms of semiology it means 'Shonibare' too. His work is so popular (he's an MBE after all; something he finds ironic) that he inspires contemporary fashion designers.

He questions what is truly African – this story of the fabrics and their origins proves that the diaspora as well as the modern world make it hard to find things that are singly and truly African. "We eat sushi then we go to school and speak English," he says. 

Champagne Kid (Swinging)
And he realises something about the modern mind. We're all influenced by where we've lived, not just where we're 'from' – 'from' being a notion that in itself is hard to perceive in Hong Kong sometimes. "At school, I was asked why I wasn't producing purely African art, but why would I?" He questions. 

In Dreaming Rich, it's the figures that are seen sporting these fabrics the most, although they are used in some paintings too. 

Cake Man is the biggest and most impressive of the globe heads, with the weight of the world cake on his shoulders. "All humans are greedy and we all like cake," Shonibare says. "'08 was a pure expression of greed and the rise of other economies in the world makes high-end brands more desirable." He has a point, China want it and little chavs in the UK want it too, as we saw during the UK riots.

"The gap between rich and poor is getting bigger and the rich want more. Cake Man symbolises this," Shonibare explains. The globe head shows the rise and fall of the stock market, on a graph. "He looks delicious and absolutely disgusting at the same time, he's burdened by too much cake." Shonibare reflects that anything you do too much, creates a burden. "It becomes a form of labour. See the contradictions?"

Penny for your thoughts 
In another series of works (Dreaming Rich drawings), Shonibare reflects on the truth about Hong Kong. Not only does he call out IFC as an erection (he's not the first person to complain about the phallic skyline) but he paid homeless people to tell him what they would do if they had loads of money. "They're real thoughts. I traded with them, I paid them for their thoughts, as homeless people here," he explains.

Something to play with
Hong Kong Toy Painting is another, created just for the show. They're playful but Shonibare says they are serious, too. 

Not only are toys and their industry iconic for Hong Kong, but Shonibare used only those made in Hong Kong that would be more reminiscent for local audiences. 

"We have enough not to want for homes and toys but not everyone is like that," he says, adding that he knows about the cage dwellings here. Will there be an uprising again? He asks. 

Shonibare's first solo in Hong Kong is showing at Pearl Lam (Pedder Building) until January 9th, 2014.

11 November, 2013

Art Critter: Marc Quinn does HK – Held By Desire

A Chantown Art Critique Critter: I'll never forget Marc Quinn's Self (blood head)I was about 19 and doing my art foundation course, when the Sensation exhibition was in London, igniting the Shock Art term which changed the art world and starting a debate first instigated by Marcel Duchamp.

There were parts of that show I liked more than others – I was never a fan of Damien Hirst. But one piece that really made an impact on me was Marc Quinn's Self. He created a bust of himself, in his own blood. What a great concept – it's you, but it's not. And it melts and dissolves. As a youngster I had always been interested in 'signs' that people had been there/ somewhere, like a mustard stain on the carpet reminding me of watching Young and Dangerous (古惑仔) with Greg. 

Anyway, it never ceases to amaze me which artists I can meet, as an artist a member of the media. I'm really lucky that I live in Hong Kong, which presumably thanks to it's financial market and the current interest in Asian art, can pull some of the most interesting artists from the far corners of the world, like London and New York. So, I got to meet Marc Quinn in person last week, as his show Held By Desire just opened at White Cube Hong Kong (8 November 2013 - 4 January 2014).

I had hoped to do something more with this post but in the midst of work stuff and renovations, there's no chance. So here's a gift of a little critter, from me to you, totalling snippets, thoughts and images.

The exhibition is centred around Quinn's exploration into how desire shapes our universe and affects man's relationship with nature. That means looking at the boundaries between art, nature and the 'man-made', so Quinn asks us to look at the raw and seemingly mystical elements of our surrounds, in his first exhibition created for Asia and its audiences.

Hunger is one of the first things that Quinn mentions, this simple and vital animal urge which makes us wish to control nature, whether for food or a more sexual satiation. His work, Held by Desire (Chinese Juniper 114), is a lacquered bronze copy of a Bonsai tree, the perfect example of something that humans try to control. Keep it in a small pot, it's a Bonsai. Let it grow in the earth, it's a tree. This sculpture is what Quinn calls a contingent of reality – the real one lives and grows in his garden. Note here, that Quinn used a 3D scanner to create this, not destroying the original in the process.

Another piece that gives a more weird take on reality, is a leg of Serano ham, carved in onyx. A trip to the British Museum inspired this one. Quinn, having seen a carving in bone of a lion, thought about the strange combination of material and subject. The Invention of Carving has a slightly uncomfortable feeling to it, made in a fleshy pink/ white stone that some say looks like flesh, but I say looks like pink Himalayan salt. Either way, there's a discomfort in there, which is added to by the sexy but torturous pose that such ham is viced into, for cutting.

Being an art critter, I won't go into every piece but I can't ignore the huge flesh paintings (they look like photo's but they're not). They are of a size that you feel uncomfortably close to the meat, because at that size, you're either really close or that's whale meat. The fat, tissues and sinews are large and bright as day, thrown together in a pile, which is just raw (of course, but I mean in feeling too) and awkward. Not gross: Awkward. Quinn considers them to be "internal landscapes" tunneling into the body. Which is, I suppose, awkward. 

The odalisque of that series is Past, Present, Future, which depicts famous model, Lara Stone (she's married to British comedian, David Walliams) lying on a bed of meat. And she's about seven months pregnant, which explains the title: We are of flesh, we're born of flesh (also moving through it when we're born) and when we die we are bits of flesh, which rot. 

When the floor opened up to questions, I'm happy to go first, seated on the front row directly in front of Quinn. "So, did you ask her to come waxed for that photo?" Apparently, "she came that way" but my question was valid – was Quinn looking to make for another shocking image, when usually such poses show no lady parts or are covered with a large fig leave?