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The Ultimate Humiliation

19.10.2020
John Batten
John Batten

Although I first met artist Mark Chung when he was a graduating fine art student at Baptist University’s Academy of Visual Art and seen his art over the years in group exhibitions and often met him at Tai Kwun, where he works as a senior technician, we hardly  knew each other. So, we arranged to meet, and over the last three weeks we have had three long conversations discussing his life and art, and as it was a conversation, it included mine. The motivation to meet was Chung’s just-completed residency and resulting exhibition, Wheezing, at de Sarthe Gallery in Wong Chuk Hang, but that isn’t quite correct. What really jolted me, was a piece of remarkably honest writing of Chung’s that I picked-up at the closing performance on the final day of the exhibition.

Mark Chung, installation view of Wheezing, during installation. (photo: John Batten)
Mark Chung, installation view of Wheezing, during installation. (photo: John Batten)
Mark Chung, installation view of Wheezing, during installation. (photo: John Batten)
Mark Chung, installation view of Wheezing, during installation. (photo: John Batten)

Here are some excerpts:

“The apartment on the 4/F in my walk-up building always smells of old people slowly dying alone in the 2 subdivided flats in that apartment. Through the disorganized pipes buried under the floors, hidden behind the walls, tangled outside the building, I can vaguely smell their flats from the shower drainage in my flat….(later) I came home to realize that the toilet door was left open. The smell of rotting instant noodles, hair and excrement clogged-up in the sewerage, filled-up the house….There is no escape, the corruption of the city is in the air, the air is in your home….They weaponize light in the dark, where everyone is panting, surrounded by confusion and overwhelmed with anger….We can only wheeze under this mode of governance. It is almost impossible to see an end to this perpetual anguish that we have endured in the past 12 months….It was unthinkable that light could blind, air could scorch, water could burn, simple unquestionable morals vanish….”

Mark Chung, installation view of Wheezing, during performance by Samson Cheung Choi Sang with audience on final day of exhibition. (photo: John Batten)
Mark Chung, installation view of Wheezing, during performance by Samson Cheung Choi Sang with audience on final day of exhibition. (photo: John Batten)
Mark Chung, installation view of Wheezing, during performance by Samson Cheung Choi Sang with audience on final day of exhibition. (photo: John Batten)
Mark Chung, installation view of Wheezing, during performance by Samson Cheung Choi Sang with audience on final day of exhibition. (photo: John Batten)

The gallery is inside a regular office building with central air-conditioning and a glazed mirrored exterior. Chung’s intentions for the space were planned and discussed with gallery director, Willem Molesworth. The gallery was completely transformed into a large whole installation. Chung ripped out the air-conditioning ducting, arranged it, serpent-like, hanging down and around the floor. He newly built a separate room with one long wall of strengthened glass. This he carefully smashed, fracturing it into veins of shattered shards; the smashing had to be precise: too hard and the glass would crash to the floor. It had to be damaged but kept intact. He fabricated a sculpture replicating Hong Kong buildings’ tangled plumbing, then set it – the opposite of on a plinth – into the gallery floor. False wooden walls were built in different spots around the gallery and some were punched through as if an angry fist had let fly. Then the air-conditioning was intentionally mucked-up by opening the exterior windows, allowing the hot summer air to be inhaled. One room was unbearably hot, the other uncomfortably cold. A bit like Hong Kong’s homes.

Mark Chung (right) watching performance. (photo: John Batten)
Mark Chung (right) watching performance. (photo: John Batten)

Chung filmed one of the city’s regular celebratory firework displays by drone, but instead of directly filming the display, the drone captured the fireworks caught in the mirrored facades of high-rise office buildings that ring Victoria Harbour. This video was prominently projected onto the smashed window and into the small room. The gallery was unlit, relying on natural light from a few distant windows. Anyone walking in front of the video’s projection was captured, hazy, shadow-like.

Mark Chung, Befuddled, video projection on laminated tempered glass, 2020. (photo: John Batten)
Mark Chung, Befuddled, video projection on laminated tempered glass, 2020. (photo: John Batten)

The gallery was transformed into a muted, darkly lit hot and cold place. Was I inside or outside? It could be a stuffy Hong Kong flat, or, on the streets, during one of those (too) many nights of protests with the air filled with flashlights and tear-gas.

The space had been completely upended. It was no longer an upmarket art salesroom. The gallery and its commercial intentions were subsumed by Chung’s intervention. I liked that. It reminded me of my own gallery when Hong Kong artist Tsang Kin-wah did similar in his White Cube exhibition in 2005 transforming the entire gallery with stenciled obscenities criticizing the art world and its hollow glitz, a money-grabbing hoax, led by art dealers like “fucking white man John Batten.” Yes – an intentional humiliation! Chung’s approach was more subtle, but he brilliantly juxtaposed Hong Kong’s recent political upheavals, worries, outrage and difficult living conditions into a beautifully pristine gallery space – that was now no longer a gallery space. As humiliations go, it was mild. Because, last Monday morning the Hong Kong SAR’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam announced that her policy address, long planned to be delivered this week on 14 October, would be postponed because President Xi Jinping’s previously unannounced visit to Shenzhen would now be on the same date.

To be told by the Central authorities to postpone a major speech, to be directed when you can address the Legislative Council and Hong Kong people – and, we now learn, to attend meetings in Beijing first, to discuss what will be included in the policy address…. Yes, that must be the ultimate humiliation. For all of us.

Tsang Kin-wah, installation view of White Cube exhibition at John Batten Gallery, 2005. (photo: John Batten)
Tsang Kin-wah, installation view of White Cube exhibition at John Batten Gallery, 2005. (photo: John Batten)
John Batten
John Batten
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