“Le Contre-Ciel” at Empty Gallery

View of “Le Contre-Ciel,” Empty Gallery, Hong Kong, 2024. Courtesy: Empty Gallery. Photo: Michael Yu

In Hong Kong, Olivia Shao’s counterpointing of tomb artifacts and works by Kazuo Ohno, Wucius Wong, and others italicizes the Chinese aesthetics written into contemporary art.

Curator Olivia Shao’s “Le Contre-Ciel” encapsulates a variety of ancient cultural relics, Chinese ink paintings, drawings, videos, and contemporary sculptures, mostly in monochrome tones, whose anachronistic arrangement blends elements of spectacle, ritual, and the mundane. According to the press material, the exhibition title (literally “against the heavens”) is inspired by the writings of French surrealist poet René Daumal, suggesting a “counter-poetics” that challenges perceived notions of cosmic order, sovereignty, and authority. Especially in the context of “the economic, cultural, and political circumstances of Hong Kong,” the translated Chinese title, nitian (逆天), also evokes Chinese philosophy’s “Mandate of Heaven,” alluding to the (im)possibility of contravening the political order and defying historical trajectories.

In some of the exhibited works, however, the counter-poetics are less a call to arms than to passive, futile resistance. Francis Alÿs’s video Cuentos Patrióticos (Patriotic Tales, 1997) stars the artist circumambulating a flagpole in Mexico City with a flock of sheep. Cued into line one by one by a recurring bell like a Buddhist gong, the looped video looks with detachment on the artist’s Sisyphean task like a metaphor for history’s repetitions. In a similarly dark humor, Tang Kwok-hin’s video Riddles of Light (2015) depicts its maker performing “the moon-viewing ceremony” common at family gatherings during the Mid-Autumn Festival, not by looking up into the sky, but by playing with its mirrored reflections in a cup of tea.

Francis Alÿs, Cuentos Patrioticos (Patriotic Tales), 1997

Francis Alÿs, Cuentos Patrioticos (Patriotic Tales), 1997, single-screen video installation, 25:40 min. Courtesy: the artist

Still from Tang Kwok-hin, Riddles of Light pt.ii, 2015

Still from Tang Kwok-hin, Riddles of Light pt.ii, 2015, looped video, 02:57 min. Courtesy: the artist

View of “Le Contre-Ciel,” Empty Gallery, Hong Kong, 2024

View of “Le Contre-Ciel,” Empty Gallery, Hong Kong, 2024. Courtesy: Empty Gallery. Photo: Michael Yu

To counter the firmament and the order of sun, the usual darkness of the exhibition space has been accentuated with references to tomb objects and the sublimity of the dead. Three ritual jade objects dating back to the Neolithic Qijia Culture (2300-1500 BCE) are meticulously displayed on a stand in the center of the main gallery. Archetypes in miniature, the three congs (琮), each excavated from a tomb, feature a square outer section around a circular inner part, punctured by a circular hole and occultishly conjuring China’s buried pasts. A TV nearby eerily plays Kazuo Ohno’s Mr. O’s Book of the Dead (1973), an experimental film in which white-faced, colorfully dressed dancers perform erotic gestures in a funerary procession, teetering the gallery space between the living and the dead, the real and the surreal.

Offsetting the spiritual with the prosaic, a 17th-century huanghuali yokeback armchair, favored by Chinese literati for centuries, sits in the same gallery, its subdued golden hue adding a rare worldliness to this solemn realm. The seat is surrounded by curious, wall-hung artworks – Michael E. Smith’s gazing ball (Untitled, 2023); Mel Chin’s lithography in the form of a Chinese scroll painting (Imperfect Pearls in the Ether of Infinite Labor, 1998); a brightly colored silkscreen on copper sheet (Culture LV11, 2017) by Antek Walczak; and Yu Ji’s giant, cement hand sculpture (Flesh in Stone – Ghost #2, 2018) – which, despite their visual appeal, lack deeper cultural or metaphysical resonances.

Mel Chin, Imperfect Pearls in the Ether of Infinite Labor, 1998

Mel Chin, Imperfect Pearls in the Ether of Infinite Labor, 1998, woodcut and lithography, 144.8 x 61 cm. Courtesy: the artist

A carved turquoise cong

A carved turquoise cong, Western China, Neolithic Period, Qijia Culture (2300-1500 BCE), 5.1 x 5.2 cm. Courtesy: Maria Kiang Chinese Art

Wucius Wong, River Journey #2, 1986

Wucius Wong, River Journey #2, 1986, ink on paper, 102.2 x 71.1 x 3.8 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Hanart TZ Gallery, Hong Kong

View of “Le Contre-Ciel,” Empty Gallery, Hong Kong, 2024

View of “Le Contre-Ciel,” Empty Gallery, Hong Kong, 2024. Courtesy: Empty Gallery. Photo: Michael Yu

Although this exhibition features several singularly significant artifacts, it also presents “counter-objects” visually or stylistically akin to certain genres of Chinese art. Made for an installation in Germany, for instance, Julia Scher’s pair of greyhound sculptures Gert and Gretel (both 2022) bear a striking resemblance to guardian lions used to ward off evil, while Liz Deschenes’s silver-toned, wall-mounted photogram 1928 – 1898 (2019), an experiment in photographic technique and materiality, is reminiscent of traditional ink painting, their imaginative associations with Chinese art unmistakable.

Other interesting cross-cultural dialogues abound. The lower gallery space harmoniously engages Wucius Wong’s ink painting River Journey No. 2 (1986) and Tom Thayer’s Rock Instrument / Symphony (2024). A modern twist on traditional Chinese shanshui (山水, “mountain and water”) painting, Wong’s work is animated by the three rock “instruments” in Thayer’s installation, which play out subtle rhythms on a series of resonating metal lids and bowls. The latter’s dark, square platform of stones further complements the negative space created by the “leave-white” (留白) in Wong’s painting.

The strength of this exhibition lies in its sophisticated assemblage of historical Chinese objects and modern artworks, with a juxtapositional perspective and appropriated counter-poetics that speak to the context of Hong Kong, long a gate between China and the West. The limitations of such an approach are also obvious, as its emphases on visual and stylistic interplay may flatten the complex histories and cultural narratives that lie beneath. Still, coupled with a restrained sensibility, the exhibition’s bold amplification of such echoes is a curatorial milestone, and it will appeal to those interested in the intersection of modern art, spirituality, and Chinese aesthetics.

Tom Thayer, Rock Symphony, 2024

Tom Thayer, Rock Symphony, 2024, stones, metal lid, bowls wood, mixed media, and electronics, 91.4 x 91.4 x 40.6 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Derek Eller Gallery, New York


Le Contre-Ciel
Empty Gallery, Hong Kong
23 Mar – 26 May 2024