Daphné Mandel, a versatile mixed-media artist who creates lavish photomontages, paintings, and collages, hasn’t exactly been wasting away over the pandemic. Instead, she got into urban exploration, venturing to every corner of Hong Kong to seek out relics from a bygone era. The scenes and objects she found have inspired a new exhibition, Hong Kong Time Rift, that opens on April 30 at Gallery Exit.
“Definitely the fact that we were stuck in Hong Kong for such a long time gave me the motivation to walk a lot,” says Mandel. “Eventually you come across a lot of abandoned structures – abandoned Hakka houses, abandoned structures related to the war. But I was seeing abandoned cinemas, hospitals, movie studios, houses that were proper mansions. They were filled with stuff and that tickled my curiosity.”
Her interest piqued by what she had seen on her walks, Mandel joined some urban exploration groups on Facebook, where people share their adventures in ruined places they aren’t supposed to go. “I was really naive – I asked where these places were and people were very protective,” she says. “Eventually I met some of them and they invited me to join some of these outings. I became good friends with a couple of them.”
That was two years ago. “I couldn’t see the end of it. There are new places that keep being revealed,” she says. “There is a hotel in Kowloon where a typhoon blew away the gate and during that one week after everyone could get into it, so the word got out. You have to be really reactive.”
Anyone who has followed Mandel’s work wouldn’t be surprised by her deep dive into urban exploration. Trained in architecture, landscape architecture and urban planning in France, she designed award-winning parks and urban spaces until moving to Hong Kong in 2008. Since then, she has produced visual art that reflects on Hong Kong’s eclectic urbanity, and in particular the juxtaposition between its lush natural environment and its hectic, densely-packed cityscape.
In her previous work—notably the series Organic Façades, Hong Kong Tree Houses and Wild Façades—Mandel has combined architectural rendering techniques with painting and drawing to evoke tong lau being taken over by nature. Still Life is a series of photo collages that bring together everyday objects—lampposts, rubbish pins, red-white-blue bags, leftover food wrappers—to tell a story of Hong Kong life. Typhoon combines two works that depict bamboo scaffolding and a bamboo theatre damaged in the aftermath of the powerful Typhoon Mangkhut. Urban Puzzle disassembles the architectural elements of Hong Kong buildings—postboxes, windows—into fascinating compositions that resemble falling leaves or swarms of insects. Together, all of this work gives the impression of someone parsing her way through the ruined landscape of a post-apocalyptic Hong Kong, trying to divine what kind of life once existed here.
Only now, that’s what Mandel was doing in real life. “It was really overwhelming – I was in a little bit of a panic,” she says. “Before, I was imagining ruins. But they really exist and they are much nicer than I thought. I was thinking, how can I possibly be fair to the level of beauty? I don’t even want to call it beauty, but it’s spectacular.”
Mandel ended up cataloguing as much as she could—individual objects, architectural details, natural landscapes—which she used to create the new works on display in Hong Kong Time Rift. Some of them are cabinets of curiosities stocked with objects from specific places, like a mansion in Kowloon Tong or a fire-damaged subdivided flat in Sham Shui Po. Others are imagined landscapes based on the rural areas she visited.
“They’re quite large pieces and they have texture, they’re both digital and painted, everything is layered. You’ve got a feeling of accumulation,” she says. “I like the idea of having works that have a big in your face kind of effect.”
It’s an approach meant to evoke the feeling of visiting these abandoned sites, from the initial impression of “walking into a place immersed in nature where the sun is coming in through gaps in the structure, where all the windows are smashed and everything is vulnerable to the outside weather,” to the discovery of the objects left behind. “It’s a pile of things and you don’t know how they relate to each other. All you have left to put together in your head is what you see. It’s a puzzle. I usually don’t go with more than one person and we don’t talk at all. We come out with different interpretations and our own explanations based on different fragments and photos and how the place is configured.”
We asked Mandel to guide us through a selection of her new works. Here’s what she had to say, in her own words.
Cabinet of Memories: Sham Shui Po Abandoned Shophouse
Each cabinet [in the show] is related to one place only. It says something about a time, a culture, a way of living. They’re very different in the rural areas and in the more densely populated districts. These little cabinets are tiny – you’ve got to get really close to see. This is what we do in these places: we lift things and open drawers. Each of these pieces is a little bit of treasure. A box of treasures – that’s what these houses are to me.
This one is a typical shophouse, quite old, probably early 20th century. it was partially damaged in a fire, a pretty bad one. I was standing outside, waiting for someone to come out of the staircase and grab the door. When I walked to the first floor, I discovered a one-metre-fifty pile of stuff I had to climb like a hill. Not the most pleasant feeling, because you’re not sure if there are any creatures under there.
This place was actually very sad. It’s one of those beautiful shophouses and you know it’s just a matter of years before you know it’s gone. And the fact that it had been quite damaged in the fire made everything look dark and dusty, with a layer of black dust that made it a bit creepy and unpleasant. It was a gigantic mess. I had not been in one of the small shophouses before and it made me realise how so much was happening in such a small space.
I paid a lot of attention to photographing everything that was intact. It almost symbolised the end of the era in a very abrupt way. In some other cabinets [in the exhibition] you see precious objects. In this one you see whatever is left after the fire – a light switch, a plastic dog, nothing that would normally catch your eye. It’s the remnants of the remnants. One step after the ruins.
Cabinet of Curiosities: Kowloon Tong Abandoned Residence
Everything around there is very upscale and well kept. I really don’t know why this house has been left like this. It’s squeezed between two ultra-developed plots of land. It’s a nice piece of architecture, maybe from the 1970s. It was like it was staged, but it wasn’t because of the dust – you can tell when people have moved things around.
When you walk in the living room, the windows are beautiful. I inserted them into the reflection of the mirror on top. There was a chandelier and chairs – everything was covered in a layer of white dust, like the visual expression of something frozen. If you think of the ideal image of an abandoned ruin in Hong Kong you would come up with that image. It was an upscale house and there were not a lot of things left, but that made what was left even more spectacular. In some kind of second kitchen in the basement, there were portraits of the beautiful lady painted in the corner.
It was mostly the architectural features of this place that had a lot of character, but there were also a lot of ceramics left, a lot of books, posters, prints that evoke the time. This place is a real gem. Also because finding an abandoned place in an ultra-developed and high-end area makes it even more bizarre in a way.
While hiking I came across several abandoned schools, which are absolutely everywhere, just everywhere. To some people they’re sad, but I don’t think they’re sad – nature makes them alive. A lot of them share architectural features that are reminiscent of Art Deco. You can see that on the third structure on the right, just above the piano. Often they’ve been abandoned for such a long time, there’s hardly anything left. But there’s always a blackboard, even if the roof is gone, with vines climbing over it. And what’s weird is there’s almost always a piano left. I found them in pretty much all the abandoned schools. It’s a very poetic idea.
When you hike, you come across so many abandoned village houses in the New Territories. These places are wide open, but even then you find a lot of stuff in them. A lot of people left the rural areas to find a better life. From what I’ve heard talking to neighbours, sometimes people come home once a year to pay tribute to ancestors, or to come for the lunar new year. They’re abandoned through the year but they’re still owned and still loved. This image condenses different things I’ve seen and observed, things that these Hakka villages have in common. There’s the roof structure, the turquoise walls you see, there’s a bit of a mess.
This is based on a structure I visited in Tai Po which is one of three houses that are connected. They all share really interesting façades. It made me think of a model, a maquette. The roof is completely gone and you have these gigantic tropical leaves – I made them out of scale [in the work] – obviously they aren’t quite that high, but I was crawling quite low on the ground in the space and it was quite a powerful image. It’s what happens when nature takes over a space. What’s bizarre is that the houses next door are occupied.
In this particular work there’s a lot of texture. It’s really something I wanted to enhance. On top of the digital montage, the vegetation is painted on very thick paper and the furniture is glued on. When you see the real work, which is quite big, you get that sense of accumulation.
This is a theatre in Cheung Chau that was one of my first urban exploration adventures. It’s a 1930s theatre that I think a lot of people have seen – you can easily see it when you go to the island. It’s [heritage] graded but I don’t think that means anything because it just keeps decaying.
I’ve always been fascinated by theatres [such as in the 2016 exhibition Hong Kong Funfair]. As soon as you see a theatre curtain there’s a story to tell. it doesn’t have to be real – putting a curtain around it is a way to frame that fantasy. When I was working on this, I was obsessed with it because everything common to abandoned spaces in Hong Kong was here in one place, and it was a theatre. There’s a forest growing, the roof was partially collapsed so the sun was coming through, you still have the old projector which is a work of art, there’s the stage with light coming through the back – it’s pure beauty.
I had worked a little bit on this scale in my previous exhibition at the Museum of Medical Sciences, which explored the idea of contemporary ruins. I wanted to go deeper into that theme. I wanted to have a larger scale of landscape and not just inside the houses. None of these landscapes exists as is, but all of the structures in them exist – they come from different areas of the city. I composed my idea of the landscape of an abandoned village digitally, because I wanted to have a smooth transition between the structures and the hills, and they’re all kind of lost in the layer of mist. How often do we hike in Hong Kong and a cloud goes by and two seconds later it disappears, like smoke? It’s beautiful. it’s also a way to symbolise the fading of some of these houses. And sometimes because of the mist, you’re guessing what’s in the distance.
On top of these digital montages, I worked separately on the layers of vegetation. I like to glue them so people see the edges and contours because the vegetation comes after. Often I use flashy colours because – when you’re in France in an abandoned place, it’s just weeds, but here in Hong Kong there are really vivid colours. It makes the whole scene really dramatic.
Hong Kong Time Rift runs from April 30 to May 28, 2022, at Gallery Exit. Click here for more information.