• Shows
  • May 07, 2013

What’s Up: Hong Kong

KITTY CHOU, Spring, 2012, ink-jet on Hahnemuhle photo rag paper,

Spring has arrived in Hong Kong with a diverse array of photography shows sprouting across the city. The crop of international and up-and-coming artists offer a welcome respite from the prevailing work that documents the urban landscape. But the photographs’ sequestering to off-kilter exhibition spaces and annexes raises questions about the medium's status in Hong Kong. Real estate is everything in this city, and these diminutive displays may indicate that it will be some time before photography gains the legitimacy of painting and sculpture in the commercial art market. 

A photographer who pursued her passion after a brief career in interior design, Kitty Chou records watery reflections that verge on pure abstraction. “It’s Just Water,” the artist’s first exhibition in her native Hong Kong, was relegated to Ben Brown’s “Project Room,” an offshoot of the larger gallery that was hosting a collection of Alexander Calder’s famed mobiles and faux-naïf paintings. Chou’s works, due in part to their large size, looked restrained by the small space. Furthermore, their uniform dimensions called for several of the photos’ enlargement, making for a pixelated quality. With Ben Brown’s roster of international artists, a local photographer focusing on such universally appealing subject matter could be seen as a diplomatic gesture. The division of the space and quality of the prints, however, questioned the sufficiency of this proposal. 

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At Espace Louis Vuitton, Stéphane Couturier’s grand architectural abstractions hung in the store’s mezzanine level gallery, which stood starkly vacant above the din of shoppers. Images contained the structural details of buildings superimposed upon one another to scintillating effect. In one work, the severe concrete façade of one of Corbusier’s buildings was enlivened with a skin of the modernist architect’s vibrant mural design, initially intended for its interior. The photographs' quality was gem-like. The works, however, were not for sale. Given the nature of luxury brands, whose image relies heavily on the caché of exclusivity, this felt tactical: an effort to simulate purity in a heavily trafficked, commercial area. Lengthy tables lining the space offered books featuring local Hong Kong artists, detracting slightly from the works and revealing the expected tourist clientele. 

Chai Wan’s AO Vertical Art Space was in full bloom, but without sunlight, the works hanging in the stairwell gallery were left to wither. Viewers descended into the seedy gloom of “Spring: An Exhibition of Erotic Photography.”  The show's erotic images were—as images that are deemed erotic tend to be—full of conspicuous innuendo, or none at all. Excerpts from erotic literature served as exhibition texts, contributing to the over-literalness of the show. The works, which hung in a conventional fashion despite the unusual setting, failed to be transformative. The viewer remained decidedly in a stairwell.

LARRY CLARK, Timmy Morris (T50), 1971, black and white photograph, 35.56

One of the photo exhibitions did bare fruit. The work of American filmmaker and photographer Larry Clark enjoyed its Asian debut in Simon Lee's spacious gallery. With excerpts from his series "Tulsa" (1963-1971) and "Teenage Lust" (1963-1983), depicting the raw and rebellious lifestyle of American teenagers, the exhibition gave a satisfying overview of an artist unfamiliar to local audiences. The vividness of the black and white images was enhanced by the gallery's unimposing setting. Unlike the other exhibitions, the works were given enough room to speak for themselves, and they did so with inimitable style. Hong Kong galleries would do well to either allow photographs the space to breathe or else promote work better suited to their particular spatial constraints.