“Post-Human Narratives: In the Name of Scientific Witchery”
By Pamela Wong
Before entering the Hong Kong Museum of Medical Sciences, guests must log their visit on the city’s official contact-tracing app and take their temperatures. This series of compulsory acts—a modern-day magical ritual that supposedly prevents the spread of Covid-19—introduced the group show “In the Name of Scientific Witchery,” the third episode of the exhibition series “Post-Human Narratives” curated by Kobe Ko.
Located upstairs in the Edwardian-style colonial building, the show explored the gray zone between the physical and the spiritual. This ambiguity was embedded in the cassette tapes of Ice Wong Kei Suet’s That night, the echoes of Lisea’s song sounded across the ocean. (2022), which record Wong’s dream of a whale and the scientific or spiritual interpretations of her dream provided by professionals. In one tape, a Chinese fortune teller connects her dream with her physical wellbeing and explains how the word “術數” (the Cantonese term for the practice of fortune-telling) means “a combination of art and mathematics.” Demonstrating a real-world example of this idea, a plastic board standing on the table is carved with the atomic number of different elements, referencing the revelation received by Russian chemist Dmitri Mendeleev in his dream before he finalized the periodic table. While Mendeleev gained scientific insight from the oracular, Florence Lam’s Berth (2022), placed next to Wong’s work, searches for the spiritual implications of scientific images. Capturing Lam’s uterus during menstruation, the pile of ultrasound images evokes tidal changes in a harbor. Lam’s images recall the sacredness of the reproductive organs of women—the only passage for human life to enter Earth—and their connection to natural rhythms.
Leaning toward the witchery end was Hou Lam Tsui’s Magic Soap (2022), replicas of the magical wands seen in Japanese anime of mahō shōjo (magical girls). Tsui’s nearby video Crystal Foam (2022) compares the magical girls’ transformation scenes in anime such as Ojamajo Doremi with soap commercials of women in the shower. The girls are usually tricked into signing a contract with a spiritual being to become a mahō shōjo, often without knowing the sacrifices they have to make. While the mahō shōjo is branded as a young heroine, symbolizing hope and self-empowerment, the diminishing quality of the soap-wand, a symbol of the contract, underscores the unreliability of the deal and the precarity of the shōjo’s perfected female image. Nearby, Ho Sin Tung’s Contract for Co-existence (Advanced Learners’, from ‘abandon’ to ‘zoom’) (2022) further reveals this gap between reality and idealization. With each document featuring one verb from the dictionary, the papers show the signatures of Ho and her partner agreeing (or disagreeing) on carrying out various acts in relation to each other. The volume of the documents and the playfulness of the signatures, which take the form of rubber stamps of slang such as “0 firm,” meaning “uncertain,” demonstrate the impossibility of a purely romantic commitment. Here magic seems to be lacking—what is shown instead are the monotonous negotiations that living together entails in real life.
In the neighboring room, sci-fi based imaginations predict what “witchery” might look like in the future. The video In Search of Receptionists (2022), the latest episode of Bobby Yu Shuk Pui’s Genetic Salon (2018–22), expands on Yu’s vision for a service that converts humans into other species or even dead objects. In one scene, the receptionist played by Yu is talking to a suit laid out on a medical chair and a goldfish in a jar. Both are later revealed to be her clients who have gone through irrevocable alterations. In the vitrine next to the video, the text next to a goldfish fossil details the suffering of “Mr. William Bread,” who could no longer recover his memory after the “genetic beauty service.” Biological transformation becomes witchery, where a living human can disappear in a puff.
Before the age of modern medical science, spiritual practice played a significant role in a doctor’s diagnosis, as briefly mentioned in Wong’s recordings, and in many cultures, the spiritual worker—whether a shaman or a witch—was often seen as a doctor. Spiritual practices, however, often emphasize the healing process over attaining a cure, a concept that would have been perfect to explore at the Museum of Medical Sciences. The “Post-Human Narratives” series started off as a project that “redefines the boundaries of human flesh or body.” While many works on display did highlight the transformative powers brought by both science and witchery, I wonder if healing is still possible in a posthuman future.
“In the Name of Scientific Witchery” was on view at the Hong Kong Museum of Medical Sciences, from July 30 to August 28, 2022.
Pamela Wong is ArtAsiaPacific’s associate editor.