Imagine this: your conceptual art experiment, over a year in the making, is just weeks away from its opening – then a stunt by one of the world’s most famous artists steals your thunder. This is the situation faced by emerging Hong Kong artist Ernest Chang. His new exhibition Tear and Consume: An Art Experiment opens this Friday at Kong Art Space, and it has the intention of being every bit as thought-provoking and destructive as Banksy, whose work Girl with Balloon shredded itself seconds after it was sold for £1 million (HK$10 million) at an auction house.
Chang has created ten new works for his experiment, which explores technology, consumerism and their effect on contemporary art. The opening event reveals that the title of Tear and Consume is not just wordplay but instruction. At 9pm on November 16, guests will be invited to take the exhibition’s intricate works and physically tear them apart. Over the course of 30 minutes, their interventions will be recorded and uploaded to social media. Everyone participating must sign a contract to ensure conformance. Chang’s intention is that new art will be created together, an act of communion which feels at odds with the current direction of our technology-obsessed society.
“I feel as if art is more and more disconnected from the audience these days and I’d like to change that,” says Chang. Our escalating obsession with validation and reward through the accumulation of objects has reached alarming proportions. “I think the line between reality and social media will continue to blur until one day we won’t know what is virtual and what is actual,” he says.
Chang is particularly interested in the “terms and conditions” that seem to direct our lives. We acquiesce to these continuously updated digital contracts at the behest of WhatsApp, Google, iCloud, Instagram, Pornhub, Facebook, Amazon, WeChat and more. Chang’s pieces reflect this; they are literally multi-layered, with acrylic, glue and printed paper that reference Pokémon Go and anime, upon which are layered seven different terms and conditions from the leviathans of our tech-driven lives.
Chang has been formulating his concept for some time, albeit not quite the 12 years it took Banksy to prepare his auction house work. He began after witnessing how disconnected gallery audiences can be to the art they are viewing. “I wanted them to connect physically, so I thought of having them touch the works,” he says. The idea of tearing up the works came to him after noticing the layers of mangled real estate posters that accumulate on the vacant shopfronts of his neighbourhood, Wan Chai.
With its dissociated architecture and the jarring juxtaposition of history and modernity, Wan Chai is a source of inspiration for Chang. Born in the United States but raised in Hong Kong, he has split his time between both, including studying at the Ringling College of Art and Design in Florida, and the Savannah College of Art and Design’s campus in Sham Shui Po. He found this experience of art education stultifying, though, and he decided to cut it short in order to develop his style through interactions with the real world.
He settled in Wan Chai because it is an urban environment that amplifies his perceptions, particularly the technology-humanity nexus to which Hong Kong society is beholden, and about which the artist is seriously conflicted. “I also depend on the benefits and luxuries of consumerist social media,” he says. “I’m not providing any solutions, but I am raising awareness for change and the fact that we destroy beautiful parts of ourselves when we consume.”
Chang’s point is reinforced by a simple walk through Hong Kong. The city is an ocean of people interacting only with the black mirror of their smartphone. Many are playing Pokémon Go, whose characters are the subject of some of Chang’s works. The gamification of the world to catch mythical creatures is a phenomenon that Chang feels typifies the prevailing attitude. “People collect Pokémon like trophies, … collection is more important than experience,” he says.
He wants his experiment to reflect Hong Kong’s sometime cannibalistic lifestyle, where social media-driven consumerism and social endorsement is revered, despite the inherent undertone of addiction. Nowhere more has this science been exploited than the digital world, where every revenue-driven click is a cynical exploitation of our brain’s chemical reactions. The reward we feel from social interactions is the release of dopamine in our brain; the more we are rewarded, the stronger the neural networks which drive the delivery become, actions which are replicated in other addictive behaviour.
Chang, who is a recovering drug addict, can claim authority on this topic. “The insidious cycle of constantly wanting more new things is similar to the ones I’ve experienced with being addicted to drugs,” he says. “These dark cycles end up being self-destructive to the point of self-annihilation. There are many who can’t [control their impulses], and those who can’t, like me, need to watch out.” He wants to “destigmatise addiction” and is vocal in his support of KELY, an organisation that helps young people overcome and avoid alcohol and drug dependency.
This brings Chang back to the art world, which he is simultaneously trying to break into, but also recoils from. With the shredding of Girl with Balloon, Banksy intended to shake down the established art patriarchy of the auction houses, shining a light on the sale of artwork as commodities for rich but ultimately vacuous investment collectors. But like all good conceptual art, opinion is still divided over the success and authenticity of this prank.
We are told the intention was for the work to be completely shredded, but it was only partially destroyed, resulting in an entirely new work of art that was titled Love is in the Bin – one that could well be worth more, both financially and artistically, than its pre-shredded version. Certainly Banksy’s undiminished image remains, his earning power has exploded, and his name could not be illuminated more brightly. So is he the treatment or the disease?
These two conceptual art events appear connected, even the same, but on this topic, Chang demurs. “I’m actually inviting the audience themselves to go through the emotional rollercoaster that comes with destroying something of human value,” he says. “I’m making a statement with the audience whereas Banksy makes his statements at the expense of them.”
Is Chang reconciled to the loss of work six months in the making? If the audience fail to “tear and consume,” will he view his experiment as a failure? “I really had a hard time with the idea that I’m painting something for its very own destruction,” he says. “But as the painting went on, I began to feel at ease with the inevitability of unpredictability. I will view anything that happens spontaneously to be profoundly artistic.”
He is also intrigued by the audience’s mindset. Will the transitory significance of their social media reward negate any moral rectitude they may face in consuming another’s work so completely? Will they appreciate their emotional reaction when faced with the opportunity? “If they want to rip this art, they need to find some truths underneath it,” says Chang.In allowing anyone to fundamentally change the essence of the artwork, the artist also seeks to make a representation of the current state of his industry. Conglomerates align themselves with art brands, and the art world fetishises art for its monetary rather than artistic value. Chang believes this is unsustainable. “The increasing number of screens are only speeding up the inevitable death of artistic meaning,” he says.
His previous works touch on similar themes. Post Human Dimension and Falsely Implied are two series that combine technology and photography to impose new dimensions and spatial symmetry onto Hong Kong street scenes. The works exemplify and intensify the atmosphere of walking these neon-tinged streets after dark, adding both futurism and a sinister undertone. “Post Human Dimension was created out of the phenomenon of being ‘alone together,’” says Chang. “We Hongkongers love technology and I fear in the future, technology will create a gap so wide between us as individuals that we no longer feel like a community.”
For Chang, things will always come back to Wan Chai, a district which has its own peculiar atmosphere and community, and where Tear and Consume will shift after the opening weekend, to Chang’s studio and gallery, The Stallery, just a few steps up from the Blue House on Stone Nullah Lane. A limited series of prints of the original works will also be available for purchase – one final footnote to Hong Kong’s consumer driven lifestyle.
This neighbourhood is Chang’s metaphorical muse. “Wan Chai creates and destroys itself at the same time,” he says. “My art strives to capture this process and to unravel the beauty behind its chaos.” Should we appreciate or recoil in Hong Kong’s ability to tear down and start again? While this Ouroboros-like behaviour might be described as the pinnacle of capitalism, is the endless pursuit of technological empowered advancement, whilst slowly eradicating that which goes before really to be called progress?
All artworks are by Ernest Chang , 2018 – Photos courtesy of the Stallery
‘Tear and Consume: An Art Experiment’ takes place at Kong Art Space, 3 Staunton Street, Central at 9pm on Friday, November 16, 2018. Attendance welcome – as long as you agree to the terms and conditions. The exhibition ‘Tear and Consume: An Art Experiment’ then runs from November 19 – December 18, 2018 at The Stallery, G/F, 82A Stone Nullah Lane, Wan Chai.